Energy & Environment

Hawaii lawmaker said sirens ‘likely did not go off’ as Maui wildfire raged

Hawaii Rep. Jill Tokuda (D) said Sunday the state’s warning sirens “likely did not go off” as the Maui wildfire tore through parts of the island last week, marking the deadliest wildfire in modern United States history. 

“We know everybody who’s ever lived in Hawaii knows the warning sirens,” Tokuda told CBS’s Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation.” “It goes off once a month at the beginning of the month at 12 noon, and it blares. And if it doesn’t, it gets fixed, because this is our first line of defense. Unfortunately, in this situation, sadly, tragically in this situation, those sirens likely did not go off.” 

Tokuda said while there were some warning signals on cell phones, some areas had no cell coverage or electricity to receive such signals. 

“The reality is, with those warning signs, it tells all of us to turn on the television or look at our phones or turn on the radio,” Tokuda said. “The reality is was how fast this burn was.” 

“If you turned on your phone, you turned on a radio, if you even could,” she continued. “Remember, things were out at that particular point, you would not know what the crisis was. You might think it’s a tsunami, by the way, which is our first instinct, you would run towards land, which in this case, would be towards fire.” 

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced Friday she has opened a probe into the response to the wildfires in Maui and that her department would conduct a “compressive review” of the “critical decision-making and standing policies” before, during and after the fires. 

In an update Saturday, Maui County officials said the wildfire has killed 93 people, surpassing the total killed in the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California that left 85 people dead. Only two victims have been identified, officials said. 

Maui County officials said crews are still working to put out flare-ups in the Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires. As of Friday, the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimated the fire in Lahaina burned 2,170 acres and left at least 2,207 structures damaged or destroyed. In Upcountry Maui, which is in the south Maui’s Kihei area, in the mountainous inland communities, three structures on Olinda and 16 structures in Kula were destroyed, Maui County officials said.  

Tokuda said she walked through the streets of Lahaina on Saturday, calling the scene “heartbreaking.” She said they are not at a point where they can establish a timeframe for when residents could return to their homes.

“It was shocking, surreal,” Tokuda said. “We’ve heard all these words, but to actually walk those streets and to still see fires smoldering in the distance, to see cars literally melted into puddles that have hardened over the road, X’s on buildings and cars to say that it has been searched for signs of causalities or even life.”

The PDC and FEMA estimated around $5.52 billion in damages, according to the agencies’ damage assessment map Saturday. 

Brennan asked Tokuda how to make the case in Washington that Hawaii needs to be a priority in FEMA’s disaster relief funding. 

“This is a national disaster we are facing,” Tokuda said. “And one thing we have to remember, too, was this is rural America. Rural America is getting hit by these types of climate change chaoses, every single day is disaster. Rural America, which is what Hawaii is, faces a crisis of also being able to get those first responders and support as fast as they need to be able to respond in these situations.” 

Last week, President Biden asked Congress for a $40 billion package, which includes $12 billion to replenish U.S. federal disaster funds at home.

Tags Anne Lopez Hawaii Jill Tokuda Joe Biden Lahaina Margaret Brennan Maui wildfires