Searchers with cadaver dogs have been going through the remains of buildings in the west Maui community of Lahaina, looking for victims of devastating wildfires on the Hawaiian island, as officials tally the loss of life and destruction of property.
The number of confirmed deaths rose to 93 on Saturday night, according to Maui County, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, surpassing the toll of a 2018 wildfire in northern California that left 85 dead.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said the toll is expected to continue to rise, noting that efforts to find and identify the dead were still in the early stages.
“We want to brace people for that,” he told reporters four days after a fast-moving fire levelled most of the historic beach town.
“It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced,” Green said, as he toured the damage on Lahaina’s Front Street.
“We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care. And then turn to rebuilding.”
Emotions running high
“The community is reeling right now,” Nicholas Winfrey, president of Maui United Way told CBC News on Sunday, speaking from Wailuku.
In the last few days, Winfrey said, “it’s been an explosion of individuals coming together in every form and fashion to try to support in any way they can.”
“But really, in all honesty, it’s devastation, it’s moments of levity, it’s toughness, but it’s also the aloha spirit, which has been here longer than I have been here, of people coming together to do anything that they can to support those in need.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pegged an early estimate of the damage at $5.52 billion US, while Green said it was nearing $6 billion US across the island.
At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in west Maui, Green said, a large majority of which were residential. He said it would take an “incredible amount of time to recover.”
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said crews have covered just three per cent of the search area.
Pelletier said very few bodies have been identified because the remains are badly damaged by a fire hot enough to melt metal. He called on relatives of the missing to undergo DNA testing to help identify remains.
“We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least five square miles and it is full of our loved ones,” noting that the death toll is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”
About 4,500 people have been left homeless, the governor said. However, officials have secured 1,000 hotel rooms for displaced locals and FEMA personnel. More than 1,400 people have been taken in at emergency shelters.
Among those helping is Celine Scarlet, a Canadian who is living in Maui. She’s working at the missing person’s desk at one of the shelters, where emotions are high.
“We had little moments of pure joy, telling people that their loved ones have been found, and moments of despair, when the people, we had to tell them they hadn’t been located,” she told CBC News.
Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate that warning sirens sounded before the fire hit Lahaina. Officials sent alerts to cellphones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.
The power outages were expected to last several weeks in west Maui.
Fuelled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui raced through parched brush covering the island and swept into Lahaina on Tuesday.
Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.
“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on, and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” Green said. “That’s what we experienced. That’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”
“It outpaced anything firefighters could have done in the early hours,” U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said Saturday, adding that it moved horizontally, structure to structure, and “incredibly fast.”