A dark cloud of tragedy and accountability hangs over Maui following one of the deadliest wildfires in modern American history.
Earlier this month, 115 people were confirmed dead and 800-1,000 remain missing after a wildfire swept through Lahaina, a small community on the island of Maui. Now many are questioning the decisions of authorities who had closed off Honoapiilani Highway and a side bypass at the south end of the town, leading to citizens getting stuck in gridlock as they attempted to flee.
Witnesses of the fire said time was of the essence, and the barricade had forced some to take drastic measures in order to escape the blazing inferno. Kim Cuevas-Reyes, a resident of Lahaina, said she had no choice but to force her way past a line of cars and drive down the wrong side of the road in an effort to flee the fire with her two young children. “The gridlock would have left us there when the firestorm came,” said Cuevas-Reyes. “I would have had to tell my children to jump into the ocean as well and be boiled alive by the flames or we would have just died from smoke inhalation and roasted in the car.”
The Maui Police Chief John Pelletier attempted to explain the reasoning behind the barricading of the roadway during a news conference. He said that they were not attempting to prevent citizens leaving the town, but that it was necessary for the crew working on the downed power lines. However, the highway did not open for escape until two hours after the fire had started.
The ordeal has put several authorities in Hawaii under immense scrutiny for their response to the fire. Maui Emergency Management Agency Chief Herman Andaya chose not to activate the island’s emergency sirens and resigned citing “health reasons” one day after facing the music. Additionally, the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management is also under intense scrutiny for allegedly taking too long to provide the fire department with enough water to put out the fire — something that could have been prevented if the commission acted quickly enough. Lastly, Hawaiian Electric is accused of delaying repairs to the electrical grid and providing more resources for the utility’s green energy network.
Maui County has announced that it will bring in a third-party organization to investigate the actions of state and local government agencies in response to the natural disaster. With many lives lost in the flames, the victims, survivors, and communities affected hope for justice and accountability for the mishandling of the wildfire.