Lahaina resident Cole Millington was already behind the wheel of his truck with his dog and a bag at his side Tuesday afternoon when an emergency alert popped up on his phone.
"There was no evacuation notice for us," Millington said. The real warning, he said, came from the "huge plume of black smoke" in the sky over Lahaina.
Millington and his roommates had seen enough. They left likeforest firesbegan burning large parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing at least 93 people and destroying the Millington home among hundreds of other structures.
The cell phone alert "was useless," said Millington, who owns a hot sauce business in the historic town. "We have tsunami warnings that I think should have been taken advantage of ... So many of us ... felt like we had no warning at all."
In fact, the famous integrated outdoor siren warning system –the largest in the world, with about 400 alarms - was not activated during the fires, according to the fire departmentHawaii Emergency Management Agencyrepresentative Adam Weintraub.
On Maui, the second largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, there are80 outdoor sirensto warn residents about tsunamis and other natural disasters. They sat still as people ran for their lives.
"No one in the state and no one in the county has tried to activate these sirens based on our data," Weintraub said in an interview.
"It was very much a function of how fast the flames were moving," he said, referring to the inability of emergency officials to sound the sirens. "They were trying to coordinate the response on the ground and they had already issued these other warning systems."
The levels of the emergency notification system that were activated included alerts to cellphones and messages to televisions and radio stations, Weintraub said.
"On my cell phone, we got warnings of high winds and possible fires," said Allen Wu, a Lahaina resident whose home was destroyed in the fire, along with the restaurant where he worked.
“But not a real… warning like the Amber Alerts or storms we'd normally get, which would vibrate and make loud noises from our phones. We have none of that. There were no sirens."
Wu and Millington are among Maui residents questioning the effectiveness of the emergency warning system in use as wind-driven wildfires spread quickly in Lahaina and elsewhere Tuesday. It would bethe deadliest natural disasterin the history of the state.
Hawaiians are used to siren warnings
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Hawaii congressman talks about the fires in Maui
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Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopezwill lead to an overall assessment of the emergency response aimed at "understanding decisions made before and during wildfires," her office said in a statement.
Representative Jill Tokuda, a Democrat, said the state "underestimated the lethality and speed of the fire" and that the shootings failed the emergency warning system.
Hawaii residents have long been accustomed to monthly outdoor siren warning system testing.
"We rely on this emergency alert system to protect us from a lot of things," he told CNN on Saturday. "You're thinking about a tsunami. Are you considering other types of emergency, such as fires? This should have been our first line of defense. Unfortunately, these days notifications come to our mobile phones. But we also know there was no mobile phone coverage."
Although Maui's warning sirens had not been activated, emergency communication with residents was largely limited to cellphones and radio operators at a time when most power and cell phone service had already been shut off.
"We don't see any indication that Maui did anything wrong," Weintraub said.
“Maui County faced a challenging, rapidly changing situation and I believe they did everything they could to save lives. And they still are," he added.
Karel Kim, executive director of the University of Hawaii's National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, said that in addition to sirens, Hawaii has "multiple channels and sources of information — from the media, social media, from neighbors, friends and family and more means of communication."
"Clearly more work is needed to understand the science of wildfires, how they spread and what can be done to improve detection, warning and warning systems," he told CNN via email.
“People often seek confirmation that a threat is imminent, they may wait until they see flames or smell smoke or watch others evacuate before taking action. Unfortunately, in a fast-moving fire, delay can be fatal. Even if people get the warning, they may not understand it and may not have the resources or mobility to evacuate. "
“No one saw this coming. Time interval.'
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The video shows the family's terrifying escape from the Maui wildfires
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The fire spread so quickly that many people immediately left their homes without prior notification from authorities, Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said. It was "almost impossible" for emergency management officials to issue timely evacuation notices, he said.
"What we experienced was such a fast-moving neighborhood fire that the first neighborhood that caught fire basically evacuated themselves with very little warning," Ventura said.
Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said, “No one saw this coming. A period of time."
Powered by onecombination of strong wind and dry conditions— and complicated by the island's geography — the fire virtually destroyed Lahaina's tourism and economic hub and sent authorities on a frantic search for the missing.
Regering Josh Greenhe said the death toll could rise. It is unclear how many victims may still lie in the charred ruins of what was once a whaling port and fishing village on Maui's west coast. Some casualties occurred "in the countryside as people tried to escape the fire," the governor said.
As the fires spread Tuesday, power and most communications — including 911 and cell phone services — were down. Communications were still disrupted on Saturday due to the downed lines. Many people reported not hearing from their loved ones for days. The authorities resorted to informing the public through radio stations, as well as posts on the prefecture's website and social media pages.
The weather service has warned residents
Survivors: Gripping Stories of Maui Fire
02:55 - Bron:CNN
Despite the warnings, residents and authorities seem surprised.
"We had a couple of days to think about the weather," says Claydo not worry, an assistant specialist studying tropical fires at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
On Sunday, the National Weather Service in Honolulu issued a "fire warning" for the state: "Strong gusty winds, combined with low humidity ... could lead to critical fire conditions in leeward areas over the next few days."
Early Monday morning, the weather service issued a "red flag warning" as landfall combined with "strong and gusty easterly winds and low humidity" created "critical fire conditions".
"Any fires that develop are likely to spread quickly," the warning said.
May Wedelin-Lee, who also lost her home in Lahaina, said winds shifted and smoke and flames engulfed her community so quickly Tuesday afternoon that people had less than 10 minutes to prepare.
"People were standing on the side of the road crying and begging," said Wedelin-Lee, a 20-year-old Maui resident.
“Some people had bicycles. People ran. People had skateboards. People had cats under their arm. They had a baby in their arms. Just sprint down the road."
Hours earlier, at 9:55 a.m., Maui County released a seemingly upbeat update on the Lahaina fire:
"The Maui Fire Department said the Lahaina fire was 100 percent contained shortly before 9 a.m. today,” the county said on Facebook Tuesday.
About an hour later, the county notified residents of another fire:
"Kula Fire Update No. 2 at 10:50am: Fire crews remain at the scene of a fire reported at 12:22pm today near Olinda Street in Kula, which has prompted the evacuation of residents in Kula 200 and Hanamu Road" areas of the province he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, a new wildfire became a growing threat:
"With the potential risk of escalating conditions due to the Upcountry fire, the fire department is strongly advising residents on Pi'iholo and Olinda roads to evacuate as a precaution," Maui County wrote at 3:20 p.m.
Less than an hour later, it read: "The fire department is requesting the immediate evacuation of residents of the subdivision, including Kulalani Drive and Kulalani Circle, due to the Upcountry fire."
The county later said the fire had reignited in Lahaina.
"An apparent fire outbreak in Lahaina forced the closure of the Lahaina Bypass around 3:30 p.m.," Maui County reported at 4:45 p.m.
At 5:50 p.m. on Tuesday, there were "multiple evacuations due to wildfires in Lahaina and Aukundry Maui," the county said.
"Wake Up Call"
Sarah Salmonese sits Friday, Aug. 11, where her apartment once stood in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Ken Alba carries a bag of ice to a food and supply distribution center set up in the parking lot of a Lahaina mall on Thursday, Aug. 17.
On August 17th, fences will be built around damaged neighborhoods in Lahaina.
Damaged homes are seen in Lahaina on Wednesday, August 16.
Hawaii's state flag flies over a sign in Lahaina that reads "tourists stay out" on Aug. 16.Holidaymakers are asked to stay at homewhile Maui recovers. Many hotels are hosting evacuees.
A woman lays flowers and prays on a hill overlooking the ruins of Lahaina on August 16.
The Lahaina neighborhood of Wahikuli Terrace will be featured on Tuesday, August 15th.
Search and rescue workers assess the damage in Lahaina on August 15.
An FBI agent watches as two additional refrigerated storage containers arrive next to the Maui Police Department's forensic facility where human remains were stored in Wailuku, Hawaii, Monday, Aug. 14.
A spoon lies in the ruins of a home destroyed by the Aug. 14 fire in Kula, Hawaii.
Lauren Haley sprays water on hotspots in her Kula neighborhood on August 14.
JP Mayoga, chef at the Westin Maui Resort, is hugged by his wife, Makalea Ahhee, at the hotel near Lahaina on Sunday, August 13. About 200 employees lived in the hotel with their families.
Volunteers in Kihei, Hawaii, load water into a boat to be transported to West Maui on August 13.
People pray during a church service in Wailuku on August 13. Maui Coffee Attic has opened space for service after a fire destroyed Grace Baptist Church in Lahaina.
People line up at a checkpoint to gain access to Lahaina on Saturday, August 12.
Volunteers unload supplies scheduled to be delivered Aug. 12 at an evacuee distribution center in Napili-Honokowai, Hawaii.
The Honolulu Fire Department works in Lahaina on August 11th.
This aerial photo shows the shells of burned homes, vehicles and buildings in Lahaina on August 11.
Zoltan Balogh clears trees burnt by forest fires in Kula.
Cars will be parked on Honoapiilani Highway as residents regain access to fire-affected areas on August 11.
Volunteers in Maalaea, Hawaii watch as trucks full of food and supplies leave for Lahaina on August 10.
Debris from the wildfires is seen in Lahaina on August 10.
Volunteers stack cans at War Memorial Stadium in Kahului.
Burnt cars line up in Lahaina on August 10.
Vixay Phonxaylinkham holds his four-year-old child Lana as they wait for their flight at Kahului Airport on August 10. Phonoxaylinkham, his wife and their five children were returning to California. They had died in the fires but survived spending four hours in the ocean.
On August 10, people arrive on school buses to evacuate Maui Airport.
Construction wreckage is seen in Lahaina on August 10.
Myrna Ah Hee reacts as she waits outside an evacuation center in Wailuku on August 10. The Ah Hees were looking for her husband's brother. Their home in Lahaina was spared, but the fires destroyed many of their relatives' homes.
Puong Sui, center, talks with her daughter at the evacuation center in Kahului on August 10. Sui lost her home and belongings in Lahaina and planned to fly to Las Vegas to be reunited with her family.
On August 9, a wildfire rages in Kihei.
This satellite image shows an overview of the Lahaina fires on August 9.
People gather at Kahului Airport as they await flights on August 9.
Hawaii Army National Guard helicopters drop water to help fight a fire on August 9.
Residents move their belongings after wildfires swept through Lahaina on August 9.
Passengers try to sleep on the floor of Kahului Airport as they wait for flights on August 9.
The historic Waiola Church Hall and the nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission go up in flames Aug. 8 in Lahaina.
In pictures: Maui's deadly wildfires
Last year, Hawaii officials issued areport ranking the natural disasters most likely to threaten the stateThe residents. Tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic hazards featured prominently. But the state emergency management agencysympathydescribed the risk of fires to human life as "low".
Hawaii officials downplayed the deadly threat of wildfires, even as they acknowledged a lack of resources to fight them, according toCNN's review of state and local emergency planning documentsshowing how ill-prepared the state was for the disaster.
The state emergency management agency's public resource website provides clear, concise recommendations on what residents should do in the event of a hurricane, tsunami, flash flood or earthquake. At the bottom of the page are two short paragraphs about fires - no similar advice about ways to stay safe.
In 2018, as Hurricane Lane approached Hawaii,forest firesA total of 2,330 acres burned on Maui. The next year, wildfires on Maui destroyed about 25,000 acres.
"This is a wake-up call not only for Hawaii, but for other communities across the country to invest more in preparing, training and education for wildfires and other dangerous events," Kim said. "More work needs to be done to understand the risk of wildfires and how we can better limit damage and reduce the tragic loss of life."
The Maui wildfire is the nation's deadliest sincefire in California, which killed 85 people in November 2018.
long brocade,who, as former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from June 2017 to March 2019, coordinated the response to more than 100 wildfires, said the unpredictability of wildfires means decisions must be made quickly.
"Initially, it appears that Maui County has been quite proactive in notifying these fires that they are dangerous and to evacuate," he said. "And when I look at some of the original time frames that were there, the question is, 'Did people heed the warning?'
Maui photographer Rachel Zimmerman, who lost her home, described the chaos and uncertainty as the fires approached.
“The wind is just howling. We see roofs flying," he recalls. “And people are just standing around my apartment complex, neighbors, looking: What should we do? We heard there was a complete dead end and we couldn't get out of it, but we knew we had to try.
“There were people who jumped into the ocean and swam into boats to try to escape the fire. There were people lying on the ground, crying and not knowing where to go and unable to breathe because of the smoke. It's just unbelievable to know that so many people are missing and we don't know where they are."
CNN's Isabelle Chapman, Scott Bronstein, Casey Tolan, Allison Gordon, Ella Nilsen, Holly Yan, Aya Elamroussi, Sara Smart, Cheri Mossberg, Taylor Romine, Rebekah Riess and Andy Rose contributed to this report.