I arrived on the island of Maui early afternoon Sunday, August 13th. I had never been to Maui but I quickly learned the strong bond between Southern California and the island. On my flight were three members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's USAR Team (Urban Search and Rescue), they were the handlers to three cadaver dogs trained only to sniff out human remains. The team was one of many sent to the island through FEMA. Listen to my interview with firefighter Nick Bartel before we leave LAX.
In case you were wondering, the dogs traveled onboard the flight and they and their handler each had an entire row to themselves. The dogs had to be cleared by LA County veterinarians before making the trip.
My handler/field producer was Bart Avery, the owner of Bravery Brewing in Lancaster. Bart has a very strong bond with Maui and says he's been going there for forty years. Bart is a friend of KFI and was happy to offer his help during my assignment. From the moment I saw Bart at the airport, I threw him into the fray. He handled himself pretty well for never going through the stress of keeping up with me, taking me all over the island and almost being arrested. Bart was also my photographer to memorialize the assignment.
One of the overlooked tragedies of any disaster is the impact on the pet population. Within the first couple hours on the island I interviewed a member of the Maui Humane Society. At the time of the interview Katie Shannon told me there were as many as 3,000 animals unaccounted for. Listen to my interview here.
From there we headed up to the area of Kula, that's where the first wildfires began and quickly destroyed homes along a huge, cavernous ravine. Listen to my ride along with Cindy Knox, a resident of Kula as she describes the night the fires started.
Later that evening we settled at a home in the upcountry, Bart arranged for us to stay at his friend's house. The couple who live there also own restaurants on the island and are impacted by the fires not only because they are small business owners but they also provide employment to dozens of people who are now without work. The couple has also been taking in people affected by the fires to have a place to sleep and get a home cooked meal. I had the chance to interview BJ NIcholson, a retiree who survived the fires in Lahaina by staying inside his concrete apartment complex, but he was injured by the high winds which caused his building to sway back and forth so forcefully he was thrown to the concrete floor and against the wall. When it was safe to do so he walked four miles to get help while bleeding and injured. You can hear some of my interview with BJ here.
The next day (Monday) I attended a press conference at the Maui County building. The update was provided by Hawaii Governor Josh Green, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen, and Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, along with other officials. The mood was quasi-somber but perked up a bit when the Governor's Communications Director entered the room. She was upbeat and friendly. She acknowledged some regulars in the room and then laid down the rules of press conference engagement. I have never been prepped on the 'Aloha Spirit' when it comes to engagement at a press conference, but then again, I have never attended a press conference in the county of Maui. She told us, "You can ask your question in a respectful manner, you will get an answer, and while you may not like the answer, we will have to move on..."
A couple reporters asked the Governor about the mistrust locals have towards the government. The Governor tap danced around the issue by suggesting that the media, especially social media, were responsible for pushing out false and misleading information. So, when it was my turn I, too, mentioned the locals I spoke with expressed their frustration over the lack of information and mistrust of the local/state government so I suggested that if they were to let us into the 'impact zone' that we could see for ourselves what is happening from an objective point of view, for the sake of transparency. Well, that was not well received. The Governor turned the question into a political and emotional statement, and made it personal. This unedited video was recorded by Bart Avery. Decide for yourself if my demeanor was professional or not. Here's the complete unedited audio of the exchange.
The following morning on live TV Governor Green characterized our exchange a little differently than it actually happened. Listen to the unedited audio here. Local media picked up the story, including Civil Beat, based in Honolulu. Their Maui correspondent approached me for an interview about the exchange. She thanked me for bringing it up. In fact, no fewer than five local reporters/photographers approached me as I was leaving to thank me for standing up for the rights of the media, and for being professional about it. Here are a couple articles and a radio appearance about the incident:
On Tuesday, August 15th, 2023, an official from FEMA arranged for me and crews from ABC and NBC networks to get a personal escorted tour of the impact zone in Lahaina. We adhered to strict rules of engagement and security. We were given one hour to interview and gather audio/video. Here is a video compilation of that experience.
I have been at the scene of hundreds of wildfires but this one was different. Somehow, knowing the cultural sensitivities related to Lahaina and the island made this more haunting. Our group was very respectful during this escorted tour. We followed every instruction given by FEMA officials and the Maui Police Department. The group included ABC's Whit Johnson and NBC's Miguel Almaguer, plus their crews. Listen to the three of us interview FEMA Task Force Leader Frank Taylor inside the impact zone.
At the end of the tour I wanted to sum up my observations. Here I am recording a ROSR (Reporter On Scene Reporting). This is where I record my story in the natural settings of the scene. This organically blends the sounds of my surroundings with the word picture I'm recording. You hear my 'quiet' voice because it was a somber moment and I was using a very sensitive microphone. You would have heard portions of this on KFI-AM News in LA and KOGO-AM News in San Diego.
The day after my visit to Lahaina, the director of Maui's Office of Emergency Management was on the hot seat. A story had come out regarding Herman Andaya's lack of field experience for the role of MEMA Director. He tried to defend his actions at a press conference but it didn't go well for him. Here's an exchange between Andaya and a reporter from CBS News. Note Mayor Richard Bisson's intervention....Andaya was Bisson's Chief of Staff prior to becoming head of MEMA.
The following morning, Andaya abruptly resigned citing health concerns. His replacement, Darryl Oliveira, was the former Chief of the Hawaii Fire Department and Hawaii's head of Civil Defense. He took over August 28th.
On Friday morning I received word that Maui County Mayor, Richard Bissen, would be available to the media at the location of one of the food/water distribution sites in Lahaina. We drove for about twenty minutes to the shopping center where a massive relief site was set up in the parking lot.
The Mayor was going from tent to tent offering free lunch for the volunteers
Finally, he stopped at a tent to make a statement, introduce other officials and take questions. Unfortunately, it devolved into a shouting match. Listen to the exchange here.
Following the press gaggle I pulled Frank Sebastian aside. Sebastian is with the US Department of Health and Human Services' Disaster Mortuary Detail. I wanted to know more about how the human remains were being identified and how the cadaver dogs work to locate those remains. You can hear my one on one with Sebastian here.
Friday was my last day on Maui. I was able to squeeze in the Mayor's presser and do some shopping at local retailers. We also made it a point to only eat at local restaurants. I'm glad we did. Amazing food, great service, and the friendliest people. Sadly, the places were not busy because at the beginning of the fires people were told to stay away from Maui. Sad, considering 95% of the island is still open for business. I was really moved by my visit to the island of Maui. It was heartbreaking to see the devastation and know that many people's lives were lost, and many more would never be the same. I am proud of the work I did on behalf of my company and my station. I was also finally able to take a breath and put my feet in the beautiful water along the shore of Kihei.
One of the first things that happened as a result of the fires was the flurry of lawsuits, including one filed on behalf of the county of Maui. The suit alleges Hawaiian Electric caused the fires on the island and their negligence in proactive measures caused death and destruction. I spoke to one of the lead attorneys, John Fiske, with the firm Baron & Budd in San Diego. You can read the filing here. Hawaiian Electric released this statement: Hawaiian Electric called the complaint “factually and legally irresponsible,” and said its power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours before the second blaze started. In its statement, the utility addressed the cause for the first time. It said the fire on the morning of Aug. 8 “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.” But Hawaiian Electric appeared to blame Maui County for most of the devastation, and faulted county firefighters for declaring the blaze contained and leaving the scene; the fire appeared to reignite that afternoon and tore through downtown Lahaina, killing at least 115 people and destroying 2,000 structures.
Fiske has a long list of municipalities he has represented in lawsuits against utilities. Listen to my interview with Fiske here.
I finally arrived back in LA. But no sooner did I land than my program director Robin Bertolucci called to tell me she wanted a two-hour special based on my assignment on Maui. But first, she wanted me to kick off KFI's team coverage of Tropical Storm Hilary the next day, on Sunday, August 20th. So, we postponed the Maui special until the following Sunday at 2:00 PM. You can listen to the show on the link below.
And, finally, a huge thanks to Bart Avery, the owner of Bravery Brewing in Lancaster. He made it possible for me to find housing, get ground transportations, interview locals and offer needed support in the field.
Here's how you can help the victims of the devastating fires in Maui.
Other Local Giving Options:
- Maui Fieldstone Coffee Roasters is accepting donations to help the foodservice workers. 100% of donations go to servers and kitchen staff
- Maui Food Bank is accepting donations. Every dollar donated provides four meals for those in need.
- Maui Mutual Aid Fund is accepting donations to help families, elderly residents, those with disabilities, and those with limited or no insurance.
- Maui Humane Society is helping to provide aid to hundreds of injured and burnt animals and working to reunite animals lost with their owners.
National Organizations Offering Assistance:
- American Red Cross is helping to provide shelter and comfort to those in need.
- Salvation Army is providing food and support for anyone affected by the fires.
- Direct Relief is delivering medication and supplies
- Maui Relief Fund, set up by United Way. Donations will be used to help victims of the fire.
Hawaii's Governor Josh Green suggests people give to the Hawaii Community Foundation and their Maui Strong Fund. This fund has raised over $34 million since the fires broke out and has already distributed over $4 million to more than two dozen local aid groups. The foundation has waived all donation fees, with 100% of funds going toward community needs.