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Maui latest: Head of Emergency Management Agency resigns after deadly fire

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The search for victims of one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history continues on Maui. Officials say search and recovery teams have covered almost 60% of the burned area, and the death toll remains at 111. Meanwhile, after repeated questions about the warning and response to the fire, the official in charge of the island's emergency management agency has resigned. NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Maui. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So can you tell us more about this official and exactly why he resigned?

ALLEN: Right. It's Herman Andaya. As you say, he's the man in charge of the Maui Emergency Management Agency. He handed in his resignation Thursday, citing health issues. Andaya's had to answer repeated questions from the public and the media about why the agency didn't use its siren system to warn residents to evacuate the day of the fire. At a news conference on Wednesday, Andaya was asked if he regretted not using the sirens. I do not, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

HERMAN ANDAYA: Had we sounded the siren that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka. And if that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.

ALLEN: Mauka in Hawaiian means toward the mountains, and that's where the fire was spreading from. And the governor and other officials have made the same point.

CHANG: Well, does that explanation seem satisfying to people who had to figure out what to do and where to go in Lahaina?

ALLEN: Well, yeah, as you can imagine, no, it really hasn't. And Maui and all of Hawaii has a statewide system that - on its website, it says it's used for all hazards, including volcanic eruptions and wildfires. Some people reportedly did receive alerts over their cellphones, but a large number of people didn't evacuate until the fire had spread into Lahaina. The toughest questions for Andaya and the government have come from people who lost their homes and barely escaped with their lives. One of them who we spoke to is Lahaina resident Alex Calma, who thinks the sirens would have helped.

ALEX CALMA: If I would have heard the siren that morning, I would have at least prepared, packed something in my car, called my parents, tell them, hey, get ready, call my friends, you know, let them know. But yeah, nothing.

ALLEN: Another official who faced scrutiny, the senior water manager, was also transferred to another job after facing questions about why more water wasn't made available to fight the fire.

CHANG: Right. And I also know that the power company, Hawaiian Electric, is facing tough questions and lawsuits over its decision not to shut down the power as the fire threat was growing. Do we know what role the company played, if at all, in the fire?

ALLEN: Right. It's not clear yet. And we really don't know at this point what started the fire. But as you say, that hasn't stopped people from filing lawsuits, people against the company. They say the company may have - didn't take action, and that downed power lines might have helped spark the fire. Hawaiian Electric's share price and bond rating have taken a big hit as a result. Today, the company filed an investor update with the SEC. The company says it doesn't believe under Hawaiian law it can be held liable for damages from the fire. But that's something that, as you might recall, did happen to Pacific Gas & Electric. It was forced into bankruptcy after the 2018 fire in Paradise, Calif.

CHANG: Well, what have officials been saying about how they will better prepare for fires in the future on these islands?

ALLEN: Well, Governor Josh Green has been sending a message in recent days that things have now changed in Hawaii. He says we're in a time now where what he calls fire hurricanes, wildfires fueled by high winds, are a threat to the state. He's making what he calls an address to Hawaiians later today. Here's what he said yesterday to Hawaii Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOSH GREEN: We are now in an era where storms are stronger, winds are faster, and we have less in the way of water in many places. And that does mean that when we have hurricanes, we'll now always have to look at the wind speed.

ALLEN: At Green's direction, Hawaii's attorney general is investigating the fire with the goal of making recommendations on how to avoid these kind of disasters in the future.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Allen on Maui. Thank you so much, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.