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Maui wildfires death toll rises to 110 as official says using the warning sirens wouldn’t have saved lives


By Lauren Mascarenhas, Nouran Salahieh, Sara Smart and Steve Almasy, CNN

(CNN) — The death toll in the Maui wildfires is now 110, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said at a Wednesday news conference where officials faced often heated questions about the county’s actions as wildfire swept across the island last week, sending people scrambling for safety.

With so many deaths and many more people unaccounted for, the governor has commissioned the state attorney general to investigate the response. But survivors, some of who were forced to seek refuge in the ocean, have demanded answers for issues like why no warning sirens sounded.

Hawaii has one the largest siren warning systems in the world, but the 80 alarms on Maui, stayed silent. Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya told reporters Wednesday afternoon he has no regrets about not using sirens as the fires started spreading wildly August 8 and that doing so wouldn’t have affected the death toll.

Andaya said the sirens are primarily used to warn when a tsunami is approaching the area and if they had sounded, many residents would’ve gone to the mountainside, where the fire was at its worst.

“Even if we sounded the sirens, it would not have saved those people on the mountainside,” said Andaya, who later added there are no sirens on the mountains – most are on the coastline.

Andaya said the protocol for fires was to send out notices through texts, voicemails and to landlines, and notifications to televisions and radios.

“It is our practice to use the most effective means of conveying an emergency message to the public during a wildland fire,” he said.

But the fire quickly brought down communication networks, officials have said.

When asked about the condition of the siren network, Green told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “These sirens have been aging over decades. Some have received maintenance. We are waiting to see what others had available to them. But intermittently, some were broken and we’re doing a full assessment.”

Here’s the latest on what’s happening on Maui:

Some victims are named: Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, both of Lahaina, were killed, Maui County officials said Tuesday. Names of other victims have been released by families.

Many missing: Current estimates are that more than 1,000 people are unaccounted for a week after the fires devastated historic portions of Lahaina in western Maui, the governor told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.

Hospital is full: Hilton Raethel, CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said Maui Medical Center is “very full” because of numerous burn victims. About 60 patients are ready to be discharged but need some other type of care or some type of support for daily living activities and officials are having trouble placing them.

Governor wants to prevent real estate grabs: The governor said Wednesday his intention “from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimized from a land grab,” adding he has instructed the attorney general to work toward a moratorium on any real estate transactions. Green said: “That does not mean we don’t want people to come and invest in Hawaii and travel to Hawaii away from the impact zone … what it means is, people right now are traumatized. Please don’t approach them with an offer to buy land. Please don’t approach their families to tell them that they are going to be better off if they make a deal.”

Unsafe drinking water: Parts of hard-hit of the Lahaina and Upper Kula areas are under a water advisory, with residents told they “should not drink and/or boil water.”

Biden promises help: Hawaii will have “every asset they need” for ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts, the president said Tuesday, even as some on Maui have voiced frustration about a slow pace of aid. Biden mourned the loss of life and “generations of native Hawaiian history turned into ruin.” The White House said Biden will visit Maui with the first lady on Monday.

Lawsuit over power lines: Hawaiian Electric is facing a lawsuit claiming power lines blown over by high winds helped to cause the destructive Lahaina wildfire, though an official cause has not yet been determined.

Questions over power lines

Video taken at the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Makawao and first reported by The Washington Post appears to show a power pole faulting just before 11 p.m. on August 7. Soon after, what appears to be flames are seen.

The sensor system provided “verification that, indeed, this was very likely caused by a fault on the utility grid,” Marshall said.

The Makawao fire was hours before and miles away from the fire that decimated the historic portions of Lahaina in Western Maui, but Marshall said sensors detected faults on the grid before that fire, too.

“We show a clear, major fault in the vicinity of Lahaina at 11:38 p.m. Monday night, and then dozens more faults overnight until power is lost on our sensors at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning,” Marshall said.

The County of Maui said in a Facebook post a brush fire was reported Tuesday at 6:37 a.m. near Lahainaluna Road in Lahaina, and the first evacuations in the area were ordered at 6:40 a.m.

A class-action lawsuit filed over the weekend alleges the wildfires were caused by Hawaiian Electric’s energized power lines that were knocked down by strong winds.

The company and its subsidiaries “chose not to deenergize their power lines after they knew some poles and lines had fallen and were in contact with the vegetation or the ground,” the suit alleges.

Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric vice president, told CNN Sunday via email that the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. He added precautionary shut-offs have to be arranged with first responders.

“Electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting,” Kelly said.

“We know there is speculation about what started the fires, and we, along with others, are working hard to figure out what happened,” Darren Pai, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric, told The Washington Post.

Hawaiian broadcaster grapples with loss as he reports on the fires

While covering the wildfires, Hawaii News Now broadcaster Jonathan Masaki Shiroma said he found out four of his family members died in the tragedy and one more is missing.

“The people of Hawaii have always been rooted in the spirit of ‘ohana,’ which is family, and I know how painstaking this is. I know the hurt. I know the deep void we all feel because losing Lahaina, losing our family members is something so personal,” Shiroma said on CNN This Morning.

As he reported on the events unfolding in Maui, Shiroma said he started to realize that the places he called home as a child were being hit.

“I remember as a child playing at that very house that sadly was lost,” he said.

As he and others grapple with the destruction left in the wake of the fires, Shiroma said the people of Maui will be leaning on a culture of unity, patience and care for one another.

“In Hawaii, when something happens, you bring food, you bring water, you sit down and you just try to be there,” he said.

Mom describes family’s harrowing escape into ocean

Tee Dang, her three children and husband were driving on Lahaina’s Front Street last week, trying to evacuate, when cars around them suddenly caught fire as flames advanced into the historic city.

The family, there on vacation, had to abandon their rental car and jump into the ocean to save themselves.

Dang, who can’t swim, recalled her husband telling her that their only option was to get in the water.

“We opened the car to jump down. It was just like hot oven fire – flaming, blowing at us. We couldn’t breathe when we opened the car door,” Dang told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Tuesday.

Then, their 5-year-old daughter fainted.

“My daughter didn’t know what was going on. She couldn’t breathe,” Dang said, tearfully recalling the girl clutching at her throat and screaming that she couldn’t breathe before fainting.

“My heart just dropped. Just dropped. I thought I lost her at that point. I didn’t even know what to do,” the mother recalled. “Instantly she just fainted. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t imagine losing her.”

Her daughter eventually regained consciousness, and the family waited in the water for four hours before they were rescued.

Dang expressed gratitude to the residents who came to her family’s rescue and got them to an airport.

“The Hawaiian people. They gave us hope. They saved us. Without them, we would not be alive,” she said.

Kula man spent 12 hours battling fire near his home

Ross Hart, a 36-year resident of Kula in Maui’s upcountry, told CNN he tried to fight the fire in the ravine behind his house for more than 12 hours before it was clear it was time to go.

Hart, and volunteers and firefighters who were fighting the flames alongside him, were already facing ferocious winds that were hurling embers and setting the brush ablaze.

Then, the water ran out, Hart said.

“We got out when we ran out of water and the fire just took over,” Hart said.

Hart later returned to find that all that was left of the home where he raised his four children was an unrecognizable mangled pile of metal and ash.

He paced around his property putting pieces of metal into piles on Tuesday. But he wasn’t alone for long.

A crew of volunteers packed into pickup trucks pulled into his driveway offering to help. The group of locals told CNN they’ve been driving around Kula where little aid has arrived.

“People out here call it coconut wireless. And coconut wireless has been very strong and has united together over this time,” said Jace Kennedy, a Kula resident who arrived to help Hart.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Giri Viswanathan, Katherine Dillinger, Raja Razek, Taylor Romine, Gloria Pazmino, Joey Hurst, Chris Boyette and Eva Rothenberg contributed to this report.

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