Hawaiian residents heard no emergency warnings before this week’s deadly wildfires.
Official records show Hawaii‘s emergency sirens – part of the world’s largest outdoor public safety system – failed to trigger on Tuesday before the devastating blaze in the historic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui.
Survivors said they did not hear any of the 400 sirens across the island, only becoming aware of the fires when they saw flames or heard explosions.
The death toll, now standing at 55, is expected to rise as emergency responders have not yet searched inside buildings. Around 1,000 people have also been reported missing.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub said the organisation relied on mobile phone, TV and radio alerts.
But these methods of communication may have been hindered by outages.
The wildfires on Maui are Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster in six decades and the deadliest US wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
Fuelled by dry conditions and strong winds, the more than 1,000 buildings have been flattened.
“We’re waiting for FEMA to help with that search (inside buildings), as they are equipped to handle the hazmat conditions of the buildings that have been burned,” Maui’s mayor Richard T Bissen Jr told Sky News’ US partner network NBC News.
Cadaver dogs from California and Washington are aiding in the recovery amid the charred buildings.
Asked whether the island’s warning system had worked sufficiently, the mayor said it was an “impossible situation”.
“Everything happened so quickly. I can’t comment on whether or not the sirens sounded or not, but I know that the fires came up so quickly and they spread so fast,” he said.
Lahaina residents were allowed to return home today after the earlier evacuation but Hawaii’s governor Josh Green said: “They will see destruction like they have not ever seen in their lives”.
Other people were becoming increasingly worried about missing loved ones.
Kimberly Buen, from Palmdale, California, said she can’t reach her father, Maurice “Shadow” Buen, a 79-year-old retired sport fisherman who can’t see or walk well.
Her dad has two friends who drive him to the pharmacy and help read his mail, she said, but neither can get back to Lahaina, where her father lives.
“He has no way out,” Ms Buen said.
“I’ve been checking all the lists, all the social media and following all the people at the shelters. I already called the Red Cross. And I just don’t know what else to do.”
The cause of the fires remain unknown.