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Maui Wildfires Latest: Number of Missing Drops to 66, from Hundreds


Hawaii’s governor announced on Friday that the list of people missing from the Lahaina fire had been whittled down to just 66 names, down from 385. The new number is a vast relief to officials who at one point feared that hundreds of people would never be accounted for.

In the first days after the fire, the missing list swelled to close to 3,000. But a clearer picture of what the final death toll will be has emerged after rescuers combed for weeks through the ash looking for human remains, and investigators cross-referenced various lists compiled by shelters and government agencies.

As of Friday afternoon in Hawaii, officials had not yet released the 66 names.

The official death toll remains at 115, a figure that hasn’t budged in more than two weeks. Maui County has publicly identified 55 people after notifying their families, and says it has identified five more whose relatives still need to be reached.

That leaves 55 people whose remains have not yet been identified, and it is possible that they account for some or all of those missing. If there is overlap, the ultimate death toll may not rise far beyond its current level.

When the search of the burn area, which includes approximately 2,200 damaged or destroyed structures, was completed in late August, Gov. Josh Green and other officials acknowledged that some of the dead may never be found or identified.

There are significant worries about the cost of rebuilding for residents — an early estimate projects that $5.5 billion will be needed to repair damaged areas in West Maui — as well as about the economic revival of a tourism-dependent island.

The death toll of at least 115 marks the fires on Maui as one of the worst natural disasters in Hawaii’s history and the nation’s deadliest since 1918, when blazes in northeast Minnesota killed hundreds of people.

The slow pace of identifying victims was dictated, officials said, by the large-scale destruction and by Maui’s remoteness, which complicated the arrival of out-of-state search dog teams. About 340 emergency personnel and 50 canine units combed for bone fragments through the ash in the burn area.

Without fingerprints or dental records that can be used to identify human remains, officials have resorted to DNA testing. But they have said that the shortage of DNA samples from victims’ close family members is slowing the already painstaking identification process.

41 of the 55 victims who have been publicly identified, or about 3 in 4, are ages 60 or older. Only about 20 percent of Lahaina residents are 65 or older, according to the U.S. census.

By making the names public in recent weeks, the authorities hoped to narrow the tally of the missing. But forensic analysis and DNA testing can take months or even years to identify the dead, as with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the wildfire that devastated Paradise, Calif.

Governor Green said on Wednesday that 6,000 displaced residents were staying in Maui hotels, while another 1,100 are in Airbnb rentals. Rental assistance will last for 18 months, he said. The American Red Cross is giving residents meals, mental health support and financial help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given approximately $19 million in aid, Governor Green said. County and federal aid efforts gathered pace over the last few weeks, after frustrated residents in West Maui initially said that they were receiving far more help from an ad hoc network of charitable organizations and volunteers than they were from the government.

Experts said one possibility was that active power lines that had fallen in high winds ignited the fire that ultimately consumed Lahaina.

Maui County officials have claimed in a lawsuit that the “intentional and malicious” mismanagement of power lines by Hawaiian Electric, the state’s leading utility, had allowed flames to spark. Law firms have also filed suits on behalf of victims, claiming that the utility was at fault for having power equipment that could not withstand heavy winds, and for keeping power lines electrified despite warnings of high winds amplified by a hurricane hundreds of miles away.

Hawaiian Electric acknowledged in late August that its power lines ignited a fire early on the morning of Aug. 8. But the utility said that its lines weren’t carrying any current by the time flames erupted in the midafternoon and destroyed Lahaina. The cause of that second “afternoon fire,” the utility said, had not yet been determined.

Shelee Kimura, the chief executive of Hawaiian Electric, called the county’s lawsuit “factually and legally irresponsible.”

Worsening drought conditions in recent weeks probably also contributed. Nearly 16 percent of Maui County was in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Compounding the trouble, none of the 80 warning sirens placed around the island were activated, there was a water shortage for firefighters, and the evacuation route was jammed with traffic.

Hawaii’s attorney general, Anne E. Lopez, said that an outside agency would investigate the state government’s response.

There are widespread fears that rebuilding will be difficult or impossible for many residents. State and local officials are considering a moratorium on sales of damaged or destroyed properties to prevent outsiders from taking advantage of the tragedy. Ms. Lopez told property owners in the burn area to report any unsolicited offers to buy their properties. “Preying on people who suffered the most from the tragedy on Maui is despicable,” she said.

And the Hawaii Tourism Authority said that visitors planning to travel to West Maui within the next several months should delay their trips or find another destination, as most of the 1,000 rooms in the area have been set aside for evacuees and rescue workers. The agency approved a $2.6 million marketing plan on Aug. 31 to encourage travel to Maui but asked that tourists be respectful and not visit the Lahaina area or West Maui.

A longer-term worry is the changing climate.

The area burned by wildfires in Hawaii each year has quadrupled in recent decades. Invasive grasses that leave the islands increasingly susceptible to wildfires and climate change have worsened dry and hot conditions in the state, allowing wildfires to spread more quickly, climatologists say.

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