Maui Emergency Management Agency keeps a watchful eye for threats to county

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The Maui Emergency Management Agency is a small county agency of six dedicated employees. With a small staff, we are tasked with handling various phases of an emergency. The phases are preparation, response, recovery and mitigation. Each day, we monitor many types of emergencies, keeping a watchful eye for threats beyond Maui nui’s horizons. Such was the case two weeks ago.

Soon after Hurricane Hector passed south of the State of Hawaii, we quickly reverted back to a state of alert when Hurricane Lane formed off the coast of Mexico. Our office tracked this storm, studying various projections and models. Per our hurricane plan, once the system passed 140 west longitude, we began receiving daily weather and operational briefings with the state and our sister counties through the video tele-conference (VTC). The first briefing for Hurricane Lane occurred three Saturdays ago. As this hurricane approached our islands, it went from a Category 4 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane. At this point, our emergency operation center (EOC) was “activated” and went from six to as many as 80 personnel from county, state, federal agencies, non-government organizations and private corporations. Our EOC partners included the fire and police chiefs, county department heads, school superintendents, U.S. Coast Guard personnel, national guardsmen, American Red Cross, airport manager, national parks and the state Department of Health, just to name a few.

Our EOC went into 24-hour operations and, while the county was asleep, the approximately 80 individuals were staffing our planning, logistics, operations and administration sections. Personnel from FEMA and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency arrived to provide support. As the National Weather Service predicted heavy rains which could result in flash flooding and coastal flooding, FEMA deployed and pre-positioned a 35-member swift water rescue team to Maui.

Prior to and during Hurricane Lane’s approach to our islands, our public information team was gathering information from federal, state and county agencies in order to disseminate information to the public.

Many county employees from various departments were out clearing downed trees, dealing with a large sinkhole in Haiku, working with Maui Electric regarding downed power lines, and warning visitors, hikers, campers and homeless. County call-takers worked 24-hour shifts receiving calls from residents as well as Mainland callers. Many others were working hard behind the scenes.

Many of these individuals, including Mayor Alan Arakawa, had already worked 12- to 24-plus-hour shifts to prepare and address Hurricane Lane when, at 1:45 a.m. Aug. 23, the EOC fire department representative announced that a brush fire was raging in West Maui. In total, there were three fires, with the largest burning over 2,000 acres.

A decision was made to initially evacuate about 100 homes but later more homes were evacuated. In certain parts of Lahaina, three text alerts were sent warning residents that a brush fire was nearby and to prepare to evacuate, if necessary. A hurricane shelter was already set up at Lahaina Intermediate School, but as the fast-moving fire approached Lahaina town, it was moved to the Lahaina Civic Center. County of Maui Public Works crews were activated and, working with local construction companies, used bulldozers to create firebreaks to prevent the fire from spreading. FEMA’s swift water rescue team was also utilized to fight the blaze.

Thanks to the Maui Fire Department, the fire was contained and Lahaina town was spared. And thanks to the Maui Police Department officers, who went door to door to evacuate homes, no lives were lost.

A day after the fire, Hurricane Lane was downgraded to a tropical storm and traveled away from our county.

While the county was fortunate in many ways, we remain mindful of those who lost their homes. On Sunday, Aug. 26, the day after the hurricane dissipated, MEMA staff went into Kauaula Valley and met with residents as well as others affected by the brush fire. County crews were on site and began hauling away debris. MEMA began planning for debris removal from the valley as public works crews had already removed two truckloads of metals and planned to remove another three loads.

MEMA wants to thank all of those who assisted prior to, during and after the hurricane and brush fires.

* Herman Andaya Jr. is Maui County Emergency Management Agency administrator.

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