Maui Fire Exposes Greece's Model for Emergency Preparedness

Very high fire danger

The Wall Street Journal published an article this week titled ‘The Fire in Maui and the Lesson of Greece’. Author Costas Synolakis began by noting, “Athens learned the lessons of a 2018 blaze that killed 104. In Rhodes last month, only one person died.”

He then asks, “What went wrong in Maui? Last week a fire burned the historic city of Lahaina to the ground and killed at least 93 people, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Some local politicians have called the fire the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history and compared it with the 1960 tsunami in Hilo, although a 1946 tsunami in Hilo, caused by an earthquake in Alaska, killed 158. Critics are questioning the emergency response and the effectiveness of evacuations. As in other disasters, comparisons with practices elsewhere are helpful and provide perspective.”

He chose to compare Maui and Rhodes, “an island roughly the same length and width as Maui. Its economy depends almost entirely on tourism, with about 2.5 million visitors in 2022, about the same number as Maui. Maui is a typical tropical Polynesian island; Rhodes is subtropical, and by Eastern Mediterranean standards, quite wooded and wet.”

Synolakis continued: “Last month several fires broke out in Rhodes, and there were big differences in crisis management. In Maui, about 11,000 tourists were evacuated, mainly from two locales. In Rhodes, between 20,000 and 30,000 people were evacuated from 12 locales in a single day. The fires in Maui burned for two days, and in Rhodes for about eight. In Rhodes, about 1,500 were evacuated from beaches, in Maui fewer than 20. In Rhodes, local residents, the Red Cross, and Greek Civil Protection delivered humanitarian supplies to evacuees. In Maui, some survivors reportedly had to buy their own mattresses and pillows.”

Most importantly, “in Rhodes, there was only one casualty, a volunteer firefighter. There were evacuation orders from the Greek emergency communications service, known as 112. In addition to being a single emergency number like 911, the 112 service encompasses a national integrated public alert and warning system, which provides emergency information to the public through mobile and landline telephones. The service doesn’t require an app or subscription; the messages go to all cellphones in an area at risk, in Greek and in English.”

This service aims to reach all cellphones in at-risk areas and ensure that timely warnings and instructions are received by the public.

Unfortunately, there have been instances where local warning systems have failed to deliver timely alerts, leading to tragic consequences. For example, in Maui, the reliance on confusing social media posts resulted in many people not receiving the necessary warnings. Similarly, in a Greek fire incident in Mati, there was a lack of warning and 104 lives were lost as a result.

Comparisons can be drawn between these incidents, highlighting the need for effective emergency communication. In both cases, strong winds played a significant role in the rapid spread of the fires. Additionally, firefighting resources were limited, further exacerbating the situation.

The devastation caused by these fires emphasizes the importance of proactive measures. The complete destruction of buildings in Lahaina and the loss of lives in Mati highlight the urgent need for improved crisis traffic management and evacuation procedures. Delays and confusion in these processes can have dire consequences.

Experts, such as Professor Synolakis from the University of Southern California, have raised concerns about the lack of foresight in predicting these outcomes. Lessons can be learned from previous incidents, such as the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and proactive measures should be taken to prevent similar tragedies.

In conclusion, emergency information should be provided to the public through mobile and landline telephones in a timely manner and in languages understood by the affected population. This ensures that crucial warnings and instructions are received, thereby reducing the risk to lives and property. Improvements in crisis management and evacuation procedures are essential to prevent further loss and devastation.

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