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67 dead in Maui wildfires amid questions over emergency alert system

Officials reportedly opted not to sound sirens, instead attempting to alert residents by cellphone as wildfires cut communications to Lahaina.
67 dead in Maui wildfires; questions on emergency alerts arise
Posted at 4:58 AM, Aug 11, 2023

Hawaii officials reported Friday that 67 people died when a massive wildfire tore through a significant portion of the Hawaiian resort town of Lahaina. 

Firefighters said that the Lahaina fire was mostly contained by Thursday as the gusty winds that affected Maui throughout the week calmed. 

Officials have confirmed that hundreds of buildings have been destroyed as President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration, making federal resources more readily available. 

"Anyone who's lost a loved one, home damaged or destroyed is going to get help immediately," President Biden said.  

There are now questions about how residents were alerted to the fire. The Associated Press reported that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency did not sound sirens, instead relying on alerting people through smartphones along with television and radio broadcasts. Those alerts may have been sent to residents after the power had already gone out in Lahaina.

Some residents only realized they were in danger when they saw the approaching flames.

Lynn Robinson, who lost her home in the fire, told the Associated Press. "There was no warning. There was absolutely none. Nobody came around. We didn't see a fire truck or anybody."

Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, told The Associated Press that Maui's firefighting capability may also have been limited.

Lee said there are at most 65 firefighters working at any one time on the island. They have 13 fire engines, but no off road-capable vehicles that may help them reach and fight wildfires before they reach developed areas.

 

The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday said vessels and aircraft performed searches for people who reportedly went into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames.

The Coast Guard said in 15 hours of searching, it had made lifesaving rescues of 17 people, and helped another 40 to shore. As of Friday, the agency has no more reports of people missing in the water, and expects to switch to other safety and surveillance missions.

SEE MORE: Airlines help more than 11,000 passengers escape Maui wildfires

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said it will take "many months" for displaced people to find a home. He added that he hopes to have a program to subsidize housing for residents displaced by the wildfires. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the town of Lahaina has a population of 12,702 residents. Officials said that 11,000 people were flown out of the area on Wednesday.

As of early Friday, residents are still prohibited from returning to the town. Residents were taken to either shelters or the airport. But some residents told Scripps News they left in such a hurry that they were unable to bring identification with them to board an airplane. 

The county said the Hawaii Community Foundation started a Maui Strong Fund to support residents impacted by the fire. 

The wildfires were fueled by gusty winds as Hurricane Dora passed to the south of Hawaii. The National Weather Service measured a wind gust of 67 mph in Maui County early Wednesday. 


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