Embattled officials in Hawaii who have been criticised for the lack of warnings as a deadly wildfire ripped through a town insisted on Wednesday that sounding emergency sirens would not have saved lives.
At least 110 people died when the inferno levelled Lahaina last week on the island of Maui, with some residents not aware their town was at risk until they saw flames for themselves.
But the head of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency, which operates a network of 80 sirens, on Wednesday defended the decision not to sound them as fire bore down on Lahaina’s more than 12,000 people.
“The sirens are used primarily for tsunamis. The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded,” Herman Andaya told a press conference.
“Had we sounded the siren that night, we’re afraid that people would have gone (into the hills)… into the fire.”
Criticism has swelled since the disaster, with survivors complaining there were no official warnings, with the mobile phone networks and electricity supply knocked out, limiting the channels by which alerts are usually delivered.
Andaya on Wednesday queried whether anyone would have noticed if the sirens had blared their 121-decibel warning — a level the American Academy of Audiology says is equivalent to a jet plane taking off.
“A lot of people who are indoors, air conditioning on whatever the case may be, they’re not going to hear the siren,” he said. “Plus the winds were very gusty (that day) … it was very loud, so they wouldn’t have heard the sirens.”
Asked if he regretted the decision not to activate the system, he replied: “I do not.”
Hawaii’s Governor Josh Green last week ordered a probe into the before-during-and-after of the tragedy, to see if lessons can be learned.
Survivors have complained that the government has been slow to help them; that the body recovery is inching along, and that they are being prevented from going back to their homes.
Disaster officials have bristled at suggestions local people have lost trust in them, insisting it is outsiders who are complaining.
“You think that people that live here that are helping don’t care?” said Maui Mayor Richard Bissen at a sometimes-testy news conference.
“Talk to the people born and raised here. Talk to the people who are trying to piece it together. The reason you should trust us is because this is our home.”
Over a third of the disaster zone has now been searched by specially trained dogs, and the death toll is expected to continue to rise as they work through the remainder.
“This is a really difficult search operation,” Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters.
“The dogs have to navigate the heat. They have to deal with issues with their paws walking through glass and debris and in these conditions. The dogs require frequent rest.
“I want to be honest with everyone: this is also going to be a very long and hard recovery.”
Only a handful of bodies recovered from Lahaina have been identified so far, two of whom were named by Maui County officials as Robert Dyckman, 74, and 79-year-old Buddy Jantoc, both from Lahaina.
Experts in forensic pathology, some of whom worked in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, have flown to Maui, as efforts are stepped up to identify remains.
Authorities on the island have begun collecting DNA samples from people whose relatives are missing. But the presence of so many tourists was a further complicating factor, and could necessitate a much larger network for capturing samples, said Adam Weintraub of Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
“We’re going to have to establish some kind of system where if you have family who are vacationing on Maui and you haven’t been able to contact them, you can go to your local police station” to give a sample, he said.
Biden ‘committed’ to Hawaii aid
The White House said US President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, will “meet with first responders, survivors, as well as federal, state, and local officials” in Maui on Monday.
“I remain committed to delivering everything the people of Hawaii need as they recover from this disaster,” the president wrote on social media.
Biden had quickly declared a major disaster in Hawaii after last week’s inferno, allowing the deployment of emergency assistance from the federal government.
But he has been criticised by the Republican opposition for what they characterized as a timid response to the fires.
The White House said emergency officials had advised that “search and recovery efforts are expected to be at a stage early next week to allow for a presidential visit.”