In the last five years, the Hawaiian emergency alarm system mistakenly went off two different times, causing panic among residents. This week, the system fell short yet again but in a profound way — there was never a warning to the community about the latest wildfires set ablaze on the island of Maui.
Most survivors had little warning of the gaining fire until they smelled smoke or saw flames, reported The Associated Press. Dustin Kaleiopu, a resident of the city of Lahaina that’s in ruins, left his home with his grandfather when smoke started coming through the window, reported CBS News.
“By the time we got in our car, our neighbor’s yard was on fire,” Kaleiopu said. “There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out.”
“By the time we got in our car, our neighbor’s yard was on fire,” Dustin Kaleiopu, a resident of the city of Lahaina that’s in ruins, told CBS. “There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out.”
Hawaii has prided itself in the past on what it’s called the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, equipped with 400 sirens across the island.
But the Hawaii emergency management team has no record of the sirens sounding to warn residents of the fires on Tuesday, per AP. Instead, Adam Weintraub — who is a Hawaii Emergency Management spokesman — said alerts were sent out through cellphones, televisions and radio stations, which weren’t reliable considering the power and cell tower outages at the time.
The stage was set for a mess of confusion and lack of communication from emergency services.
Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura told CBS that the fire moved too quickly from the brush into neighborhoods. Propelled forward by the hurricane-force winds, it was too late to get messages to the emergency management who could then inform residents.
On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posted on social media that Hurricane Dora’s winds “fueled” the fires that “have destroyed buildings, caused power outages and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.”
Several #wildfires are burning across parts of Hawaii this week, fueled in part by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing to the south. @NOAA's GOESWest was tracking the hotspots and smoke from the fires as they burned across parts of Maui and the Big Island yesterday evening.… pic.twitter.com/WzApS2ddTi
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) August 9, 2023
It’s uncertain how many lives would have been saved if more had been alerted.
The death toll is up to more than 55 people, and officials say they expect to find more dead among the ashes.
What other incidents have occurred with Hawaii’s alarm system?
In 2019, a false missile alarm across the island of Oahu scared residents half to death. The sirens can be heard on a social media video posted by a resident at the time.
Someone in the video can be heard asking, “Are we gonna die?”
Soon after, Honolulu Police Department took the blame for the mishap and apologized, per NBC. Chief Susan Ballard said, “We realize we need to make sure that we’re training on training equipment only.”
At the time, a resident referred to how this had happened the year before in 2018, when emergency alerts were also sent out, expressly stating, “This is not a drill,” the resident showed in a post.
NBC reported that it took 30 minutes before a correction was sent out that there wasn’t a real missile threat.