The beautiful paradise of Maui was on fire.
When I close my eyes and think about Maui, I see lush vegetation, gorgeous sun-swept vistas, and a relaxed, life-loving vibe. I picture leis, grass skirts, and ukuleles. Thinking of any portion of Hawaii devastated by a wildfire is jarring and tragic.
Nonetheless, as risk managers, when we encounter a natural disaster of the level that occurred in Lahaina two weeks ago, we must assess what efforts were made to prevent it and learn from the mistakes.
On August 8, powerful gusts of winds buffeted the island of Maui, driven by a passing hurricane some 500 miles south. These winds triggered around 30 downed power lines in the Lahaina resort town area on the island’s west side, which may have been the cause of the wildfire. Driven by high winds, the fire quickly spread into closely clustered residential neighborhoods on the inland side of the town, tucked away between a beach and a mountainside.
There were immediate issues with the emergency response, as firefighters sometimes struggled with lagging water pressure. The fire had melted pipes, leading to water delivery system issues. Authorities neglected to use a warning siren system to alert residents of the fire, relying on vague and late social media posts. Many only became aware of the fire when they smelled smoke and saw flames.
There was a rush to evacuate the city, but there is only one road out of Lahaina, which authorities blocked earlier because of the downed power lines. This resulted in a massive traffic jam of fleeing residents trapped by the worst wildfire the country had seen in over a century.
In the aftermath, the loss of life is shocking. As of this writing, 115 are confirmed dead, and as many as a thousand more are missing. Lahaina was utterly destroyed. Thousands of residents have lost their community, homes, and businesses.
A Failure to Communicate
It is an arduous task to “Monday morning quarterback” the emergency response to a tragedy of this scale. However, we must review the decisions and preparations of the emergency authorities to ensure the same does not happen to us at our agencies.
The standout decision was choosing not to utilize the state-of-the-art warning siren system to alert the town of the fire. Authorities have stated there was a fear that residents would think the sirens meant an oncoming tsunami and rush up the mountainside, and thus directly into the path of the fire.
Residents would only think this if there had been a failure by the authorities to make them aware that the sirens were to be used in any number of natural disasters and not just for tsunamis. Even if there had been confusion, at least the sirens would have made it clear to all that something hazardous was occurring and to evacuate.
Instead of sirens, Maui authorities used social media to send out alerts. There are several problems with this. The alerts would only go to those who had signed up to follow Maui’s social media feeds, reaching a significantly reduced portion of the population. Furthermore, the posts were vague and late, failing to convey the urgency of the situation. Anyone who didn’t have their phones powered up or on their person would have missed the alerts. The gusty winds had taken out power and communication networks throughout Lahaina.
A Town Unprepared
When it comes to emergency planning, authorities must take special consideration for towns like Lahaina. The confined locale along a coastal hillside meant that it was vital to have a plan in place to quickly evacuate a town with only one exiting roadway. A quick-moving disaster like a wildfire spares little time for a proper response. The danger is urgent and immediate.
Also, there was a failure to assess the ability of the water delivery system to continue to operate during a wildfire, which is a critical error considering the importance of water to firefighting.
These issues and the emergency communication decisions exacerbated what was already an extreme and life-threatening event.
Learn The Lesson
You may work with an agency with thousands of people under its care at any time. The point of tragedies like the Lahaina wildfire is that we rarely see them coming. The only proper response is to prepare for all eventualities as best as possible.
That means performing risk analysis for all potential emergency circumstances, even unlikely ones. Determine the risk and decide how you will respond. Train your people to know what to do if these natural or man-made disasters occur. Upgrade your facilities to aid your response and shield your people from danger.
The response to an emergency does not begin when the crisis starts. It begins with planning and training in the months and years ahead of the event. Take the lessons of Lahaina to heart. Is your agency prepared to respond to a disaster of considerable size?
Watch our video above as Matt and I further discuss the mistakes made in Lahaina.