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Maui seeks contractor to review MEMA’s Aug. 8 response

County officials are seeking an outside agency to review the response of the Maui Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) during the Aug. 8, 2023, wildfires because they said the department currently has only two full-time employees.

MEMA has produced several after-action reports in recent years, including an internal draft following a wildfire during Tropical Cyclone Lane that burned homes and prompted evacuations in 2018. Additional details about the AARs produced since Tropical Cyclone Lane were not available Sunday, the county said in a statement.

The 2018 report was overseen by Herman Andaya, MEMA’s administrator during Tropical Cyclone Lane. Andaya also was MEMA’s administrator on Aug. 8 when fire leveled Lahaina, killing 101 people.

MEMA now has three part-time employees besides its two full-time employees. At full strength, MEMA is funded to employ nine full-time workers.

On May 8, the county issued a request for proposals to conduct an after-action report “assessing the coordination” of MEMA’s response to the fatal fires. The deadline to submit proposals was Friday.

Any potential contractor “understands that there may be significant public and media interest in the findings of the report,” according to the RFP, which continues, “If desired by the County, CONTRACTOR will develop both a public version and a ‘For Official Use Only’ version of the AAR.”

It “has not yet been determined” whether the county will produce a public version of the report and a separate document for internal use that will not be made public, Lois Whitney, county deputy director of communications and government affairs, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement.

The 2018 draft AAR was created by MEMA for official use only. It was released to the public in October following Uniform Public Information Act requests from multiple news organizations.

“During the (Aug. 8) incident, the MEMA worked diligently to mobilize resources, coordinate response activities, and ensure the safety of residents and visitors,” reads part of the county’s RFP pitch to outside contractors. “The agency collaborated closely with the local fire department, law enforcement agencies, and other key stakeholders to mitigate the impact of the wildfires and protect lives and property. However, the magnitude and complexity of the Maui Wildfires of August 2023 necessitate a comprehensive evaluation of the MEMA’s performance during the incident. An After-Action Report is crucial to assess the agency’s response effectiveness, identify strengths, and highlight areas for improvement.”

The assertion by county finance officials in the RFP that officials “worked diligently” during the crisis is not reflected in the first phase of the state attorney general’s investigation, which was released April 17 and details communication failures and a lack of leadership at MEMA.

To document individual tasks and events, including what happened in the Emergency Operations Center, formal Incident Command System forms are used to help build a minute-by- minute and hour-by-hour understanding of the emergency and response.

Fire Safety Research Institute investigators hired by the state attorney general for about $1.5 million reviewed ICS forms for Aug. 7-9 emergency response activities from the Maui Police Department, the county Department of Fire and Public Safety, the Department of the Corporation Counsel, the Maui Department of Agriculture and the office of Mayor Richard Bissen.

There were no ICS 214 forms received from MEMA personnel for these dates, and the missing data makes it “difficult to make a complete and accurate accounting of activities within the EOC from August 7, 2023 through August 9, 2023,” wrote the state’s FSRI contractors.

“If certain documents have not yet been produced, it is because such documents have not yet been located despite the County’s best efforts to fully respond. The County continues its search and will produce any responsive documents as soon as such documents are located,” said Whitney. “The County produced hundreds of pages of sign-in sheets and ICS 214 Forms, including those referenced in FSRI’s Report as informing its chronology.”

The attorney general’s implication that MEMA did not produce relevant information is “unfounded and illustrates some of the deficiencies of FSRI’s analysis to date,” she said.

The state Department of the Attorney General told the Star-Advertiser that investigators are still trying to conduct more interviews as part of the state probe. State investigators have not found the missing MEMA documents.

“The Fire Safety Research Institute is still interested in talking with people and is engaging with Maui county to facilitate those interviews. FSRI has not engaged with any MEMA employees since Phase 1,” said Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the Department of the Attorney General, in a statement.

Maui Corporation Counsel Victoria J. Takayesu has said officials issued a “litigation hold” on all potential evidence within the county related to the Aug. 8 fires and also searched Andaya’s office.

County attorneys have not deposed Andaya, but did interview him twice. No evidence that he or other MEMA staff destroyed, disposed or hid critical documents related to the Aug. 8 fires has been found.

Bissen wants to hire a third party to assess what MEMA did and didn’t do Aug. 7-9, according to the county.

MEMA does not have the capacity to perform its own AAR because of staffing shortages, Whitney noted. After the Aug. 8 fires, MEMA experienced “staffing challenges,” losing four senior staff members, she said. MEMA is “continuing recruiting efforts.”

New Administrator Amos Lonokailua-Hewett started on Jan. 1 and has been “onboarding and stabilizing the organization” since his start date while continuing to work on emergency response and recovery efforts, Whitney said.

Lonokailua-Hewett is currently on “personal leave” and unavailable for an interview, she said.

“With the onboarding and stabilization of our new MEMA Director Amos Lonokailua-Hewett, we are launching an RFP to comprehensively assess our response efforts,” Bissen said in a May 8 news release about the RFP. “This review is crucial to identifying areas where improvements can be made in an effort to keep our community safe. We invite proposals from qualified experts.”

Bissen is currently part of a “cohort of Maui leaders and professionals” who are participating in an educational tour of Japan’s Tohoku region, “exploring firsthand the disaster recovery efforts” after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, said Whitney.

“The visit will facilitate insightful exchanges on resilience and innovative recovery strategies, empowering participants with applicable lessons for Maui’s reconstruction,” Whitney said. “This experience is designed to inspire and equip Maui’s leaders with innovative ideas and practices for building a resilient, sustainable community by leveraging Japan’s experiences in disaster recovery and urban resilience.”

County officials are also collaborating with After the Fire, a group created by wildfire survivors and experts to support communities as they recover from fires and rebuild, Whitney said.

Contract cost to be determined

The county is waiting for bid responses to the RFP to determine the contract’s cost. Funds to pay the contractor to perform the AAR are included for professional services in MEMA’s budget, Whitney said, and the contractor has six months to do the review.

The MEMA after-action report will provide “context and detailed information” to explain the “immense efforts that took place” in the EOC on Aug. 8 “and thereafter.”

MEMA wants to evaluate the “various aspects of the agency’s emergency management practices, protocols, coordination mechanisms, and decision-making processes,” according to the RFP.

County officials want to analyze the agency’s “communication strategies, resource allocation, incident documentation, and post- incident analysis.”

“The findings and recommendations of the AAR will serve as a valuable tool for the MEMA, The County of Maui, and all of its partners in its ongoing commitment to continuously improve its emergency management capabilities,” according to the RFP.

The Maui Police Department and Maui Fire and Public Safety also conducted after-action reports related to Aug. 8 and published the findings.

Tropical Cyclone Lane report

Five years before fire burned down Lahaina, MEMA determined its operations center and shelter sites were “insufficient” and that better disaster communications and coordination were needed.

More than 80 recommendations arose from MEMA’s “After Action Report &Improvement Plan” after the August 2018 fires, which were fueled by winds from nearby Tropical Cyclone Lane. Wildfires in West Maui during Lane leveled 21 structures and forced the evacuation of about 100 homes and the relocation of a hurricane shelter.

Improved Wi-Fi capabilities were a must to “ensure the number of partners who enter the room are capable of signing on and staying connected,” according to the 2018 self-reflection by MEMA.

MEMA wrote its own after-action report in 2018, noting that more “phone and Ethernet connections for the EOC” were needed to “increase ability to coordinate response.”

“The EOC is insufficient for the level of operations that is expected for emergency response. There needs to be some alterations to the existing space in order to improve response in addition to looking for a new space that will be sufficient for EOC Activations,” the report read.

The county point of contact at the time for questions about the findings was Andaya.

What, if anything, was done with MEMA’s 2018 recommendations is unclear. County officials declined to answer Star-Advertiser questions about the 2018 report.

“Counsel has advised the County not to discuss the 2018 AAR,” said Whitney.

Andaya did not respond to Star-Advertiser requests for comment.
Source: The Garden Island

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