Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Disaster Blame Game: 2023 Maui Wildfires’ Coordination Failures and Initial Findings

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ratna Okhai and Savannah Havird
March 1, 2024

This article was written several months after the disaster, but at the time this was written, the authors did not yet have access to any official after-action reports published.

The 2023 fires that razed Lahaina came as no surprise to many that have seen the increasing threats to the Maui County region over the last few years, whether it’s been increasing wildfire events, a lack of mitigation of the wildfire risk or inappropriate response to the disaster as discussed by Frazier et al. (2019), Ka’anapu (2023) and Nugent et al. (2020). Our initial research into the coordination failures was conducted across three databases that provide an extensive collection of current event news. We looked at the first month of the disaster response and recovery (August 8 – September 8), with efforts of the search focused on conversations around “mitigation” and “preparedness” mentions for the Maui wildfires. We began our research by looking at current event news articles because official reports would have taken time, and as we began to understand the coordination failures that took place during this disaster, firsthand accounts provided to news agencies were an apt consideration for study.

The final list of 29 news articles reflected local, national and even some international coverage.  Additionally, a significant number of the articles were centered around prior knowledge and lack of warning, with a few highlighting climate change factors, government failure, prior lawsuits and specifically, the electric company. A significant finding echoed by articles such as Frosch & Carlton (2023) and Frosch et al. (2023) was the fact that prevention advisories have been presented over the years by the Hawai’i Wildfire Management Organization. Of course, many of these advisories are often accompanied by hurdles that many of our emergency management needs face—funding, logistics, competing priorities, communication with other agencies. Additionally, climate factors have been well-studied, with many organizations such as the Georgetown Climate Center, U.S. Fish and Wildife Service, finding that the rising temperatures and landscape development have further pushed invasive and nonnative species into Hawaiian lands, water levels have continued to go down, private landowners have not maintained lands that used to be agricultural and spaces like golf courses have depleted the natural resources.

Specifically looking at agencies, discussions surround Hawaiian Electric’s failure to act, both prior to and during the wildfires, centered around the power lines that sparked dry grasses and exacerbated the fire conditions, lack of coordination with local emergency management agencies for water support and slow resilience work such as Baker et al. (2023), Browning et al. (2023), Moreno and Eavis (2023) and Penn & Eavis (2023). The Maui County government was not blameless either—they failed to adequately warn their residents of this disaster. When asked why they did not sound “one of the world’s largest networks of sirens to warn people of all kinds of events” (Carlton et al., 2023), the Emergency Management Director noted that residents may have gotten confused if these sirens were activated, since they did not want people moving toward land, and they had not been trained to expect these sirens for other disaster events. This is yet another critical finding that could have been addressed through the simple addition of training/exercises, or education. This is on top of the decisions that were constrained due to lack of resources and communication with other agencies (e.g., Hawaiian electric and power shutoff during disasters).

In all the conversations that have occurred, a few things have been prevalent in initial discussions and accounts:

  • Hawai’i has been under increasing conditions predisposed to wildfires.
    • Proliferation of nonnative species
    • Sugarcane plantations that have been left overgrown.
    • Drought conditions due to decreasing rains and natural water areas.
  • Infrastructure has been a large contributor to this disaster
    • Lack of resources for responding agencies.
    • Growth of urban areas, golf courses and tourism.
    • The utility company’s mitigation measures have been markedly slow in response to reports that date back years.
    • Landowners have failed to mitigate their own crops and overgrowth for various reasons.
  • There was a significant lack of coordination both prior to and during the response to the wildfires in 2023
    • The utility companies didnot shut off power due to fire hydrant and medical needs.
    • The local government did not push out effective public alerts and warnings through the sirens because it may confuse people.
    • Emergency services were overwhelmed by the eventual lack of water to fight the fires.

All these aspects that led to the level of devastation faced by Maui and the Lahaina city residents can be attributed to many reasons when blaming one other, but the reality is, the only path forward is to assess the different factors and coordination failures, and to work through these as we aim for a more resilient future. While this work is only reflective of the initial accounts that were published in news media, the authors are working on a more comprehensive analysis of the disaster to better understand the coordination failures that can be prevented, and mitigation and preparedness measures that must be included for future planning.

Author: Ratna Okhai, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida School of Public Affairs. Savannah Havird is a Graduate Assistant in Public Policy at the University of South Florida School of Public Affairs.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

One Response to Disaster Blame Game: 2023 Maui Wildfires’ Coordination Failures and Initial Findings

  1. Dr. Romeo Lavarias Reply

    March 1, 2024 at 4:17 pm

    Professor Okhai:

    I was one of five candidates (the only mainlander) that applied for the Maui Director position which eventually went to a local Maui firefighter. While there, I was able to converse with the candidates and some of the locals.

    In addition to what you have written (which I agree), they are also lacking personnel and expertise/experience in what it will take to address the issues you have listed.

    They also have a supply chain issues. Check out the YouTube video, “Hawaii Supply Chain & Recovery”. It is eye opening and shows why Hawaii will always be challenged.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *