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Maui's emergency services chief resigns after facing criticism for not activating sirens during fire

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — The head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency resigned abruptly Thursday, a day after saying he had no regret about not using sirens to warn residents of wildfires that devastated the historic seaside community of Lahaina and killed at least 111 people.

That decision from the agency directed by Administrator Herman Andaya, coupled with water shortages that hampered firefighters and an escape route that became clogged with vehicles, has brought intense criticism from many residents. The lack of sirens has emerged as a potential misstep, and The Associated Press reported that it was part of a series of communication issues that added to the chaos.

Mayor Richard Bissen accepted Andaya's resignation effective immediately, the County of Maui announced on Facebook. Andaya cited unspecified health reasons, with no further details provided.

“Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible,” Bissen said in the statement.

A day earlier, Andaya defended the decision not to sound sirens as the flames raged. Hawaii has what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world.

“We were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” Andaya said, using a Hawaiian word that means inland or toward the mountain. “If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”

The siren system was created after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 on the Big Island, and its website says they may be used to alert for fires.

Andaya was to take part in a meeting of Maui's fire and public safety commission on Thursday morning, but it was canceled. On Wednesday he vigorously defended his qualifications for the job, which he had held since 2017. He said he was not appointed but had been vetted, took a civil service exam and was interviewed by seasoned emergency managers.

Andaya said he had previously been deputy director of the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Concerns and had been chief of staff for former Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa for 11 years. During that time, he said, he often reported to “emergency operations centers” and participated in numerous trainings.

“So to say that I’m not qualified I think is incorrect,” he said.

Arakawa said he was disappointed by the resignation "because now we’re out one person who is really qualified.” Arakawa said Andaya was scrutinized for the job by the county’s personnel service.

“He was trying to be strong and trying to do the job," Arakawa said about the wildfire response. "He was very, very heartbroken about all the things that happened.”

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said earlier Thursday in a statement that an outside organization will conduct “an impartial, independent” review of the government’s response and officials intend “to facilitate any necessary corrective action and to advance future emergency preparedness.” The investigation will likely take months, she added.

Avery Dagupion, whose family’s home was destroyed, is among many residents who say they weren’t given earlier warning to get out.

He pointed to an announcement by Bissen on Aug. 8 saying the fire had been contained. That lulled people into a sense of safety and left him distrusting officials, Dagupion said.

At the Wednesday news conference, Gov. Josh Green and Bissen bristled when asked about such criticism.

“The people who were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes — 25 of our firefighters lost their homes," Bissen said. "You think they were doing a halfway job?”

Displaced residents are steadily filling hotels that are prepared to house them and provide services until at least next spring.

Authorities hope to empty crowded, uncomfortable group shelters by early next week, said Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations with the American Red Cross. Hotels are also available for eligible evacuees who have spent the last eight days sleeping in cars or camping in parking lots, he said.

“We will be able to keep folks in hotels for as long as it takes to find housing for them,” Kieserman said at a media briefing. “I am confident we’ll have plenty of rooms.”

Contracts with the hotels will last for at least seven months but could easily be extended, he said. Service providers at the properties will offer meals, counseling, financial assistance and other disaster aid.

Green has said at least 1,000 hotel rooms will be set aside. In addition, AirBnB said its nonprofit wing will provide properties for 1,000 people.

The governor has also vowed to protect local landowners from being “victimized” by opportunistic buyers. Green said Wednesday that he instructed the state attorney general to work toward a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina, even as he acknowledged that would likely face legal challenges.

Since the flames consumed much of Lahaina just over a week ago, locals have feared that a rebuilt town could become even more oriented toward wealthy visitors.

The cause of the wildfires, the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, is under investigation. But Hawaii is increasingly at risk from disasters, with wildfire rising fastest, according to an AP analysis of FEMA records.

The local power utility faced criticism for leaving power on as strong winds from a passing hurricane buffeted a parched area , and one video showed a cable dangling in a charred patch of grass, surrounded by flames, in the early moments of the wildfire.

“Facts about this event will continue to evolve,” Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura wrote in an email to utility customers Thursday. “And while we may not have answers for some time, we are committed, working with many others, to find out what happened as we continue to urgently focus on Maui’s restoration and rebuilding efforts.”

The search for the missing moved beyond Lahaina to other communities that were destroyed. Searchers had covered about 45% of the burned territory as of Thursday, the governor said.

Corrine Hussey Nobriga, whose home was spared, said it was hard to lay blame for a tragedy that took everyone by surprise, even if some of her neighbors raised questions about the absence of sirens and inadequate evacuation routes. The fire moved quickly through her neighborhood, not far from where crews were sifting through ash and debris looking for human remains.

“One minute we saw the fire over there,” she said, pointing toward faraway hills, “and the next minute it’s consuming all these houses.”

The search was marred by intermittent cellphone service and misleading information on social media. There were also challenges finding people who may be in hospitals, hunkered down at friends' houses or in unofficial shelters that have popped up. Many people made fliers and were going door to door in search of loved ones.

The FBI’s Honolulu division said it is helping Maui police locate and identify missing people. Immediate family members who are on Maui can provide DNA samples at the Hyatt Recency in Kaanapali beginning Friday, and those elsewhere can contact the FBI for instructions.

Judy Riley, who has been working with families seeking relatives, said false leads and a sense that “no one is in charge of the missing" have contributed to a sense of despair.

“If you are looking for the missing, it’s easy for people to slip through the cracks,” she said.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the name Nobriga in one instance.

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Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Weber from Los Angeles. Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists Michael Casey in Concord, New Hampshire; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C.; and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri.

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