Hawaiian Electric under scrutiny in wake of Maui wildfires

August 15, 2023

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A handful of Lahaina residents have filed lawsuits in state court against Hawaiian Electric in the wake of the massive, deadly wildfires on the island of Maui. 

“We allege that many of the regulatory laws that require maintenance of equipment were broken,” said attorney James Frantz, whose law firm is representing the Lahaina residents.

At least 99 people were killed in the fires, which were fueled by powerful winds from Hurricane Dora. However, hundreds remain missing, so that death toll could still rise as rescue workers search the charred remains.

The wildfires first erupted on Maui early last Tuesday. The town of Lahaina was hit the worst with the flames leaving little more than melted cars and scorched, skeletal remains of buildings.

Attorneys for those suing Hawaiian Electric assert that its equipment was not strong enough to withstand the powerful winds and that the company should have known to shut down power before the winds arose.

Many wildfires in the United States occur when poles owned by utilities or other structures carrying power lines are blown down, or when tree branches or other objects land on power lines and cause them to produce high-energy flashes of electricity. With this in mind, utility companies in other states such as California have in the past shut down power ahead of strengthening winds.

Last Tuesday, the National Weather Service expected winds of up to 45 miles per hour, with gusts of 60 miles per hour in Hawaii amid Hurricane Dora in the Pacific.

Stock analyst Shahriar Pourreza of Guggenheim Securities said the issue for those who invest in Hawaiian Electric is whether the utility did everything it reasonably could to prevent the catastrophe. “Was there gross negligence, was there imprudence?” he posited. 

Hawaiian Electric was established in 1891. It operates through subsidiary Maui Electric on that island. It’s minuscule compared to some other states’ utilities like California’s Pacific Gas and Electric. 

At a news conference Monday Hawaiian Electric chief executive Shelee Kimura said the utility did not have a shut-off program. She further asserted that cutting off power could have created other problems, like the working of crucial medical equipment as well as water pumps.

“There are choices that need to be made—and all of those factors play into it,” Kimora said. 

According to FEMA and the Pacific Disaster Center, more than 2,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed on Maui.

On Tuesday, the Biden Administration released a rundown of its response to the Hawaiian wildfires, including a onetime payment of $700 to qualifying households from FEMA.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also helping to clear roads with the aim of stabilizing electric service. 

PHOTO: Maui Wildfire, August 8

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