Due to the rapid spread of wildfires, Maui officials deemed it impossible to alert everyone.
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Officials have stated that the damage caused by the recent wildfires that burned through some parts of Maui and left many lives dead and a historic town in ruins may require years or even longer to repair.
At 9 p.m. local time on Friday, the death toll on Maui was reported to have reached at least 80 people, according to a press release issued by Mauili County officials. Meanwhile, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green announced during statewide emergency drills that the number of deaths would continue to rise as rescuers reach certain regions of the island that had been blocked by three wildfires.
“We are witnessing loss of life,” Green declared. “The number has been increasing and we will continue to witness more deaths.” He stated that the fires were the most significant emergency in recent history.
According to Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier, the number of individuals missing was estimated to be around 1,000, but he cautioned that “we have no specific information at this time.”
“The number of people that have passed is not a concern, as I’m not specifying that number,” he said during the news conference on Thursday. “Due to their inability to contact them and their shelter in the greater valley until basic necessities are met, we won’t have that amount.”
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According to Green, a minimum of 2,000 people will need to find lodging in hotels and with members of the community due to the destruction of hundreds of homes.
He urged people throughout the state to take in displaced individuals from west Maui if they had enough space.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen stated that none of the structures had been burned down when asked for a specific number.
The historic town of Lahaina, a hub for tourists and businesses that attracts around 12,000 people each year, was described by officials as “an absolute disaster zone.”
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Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura warned of ongoing fire activity and the potential for swift fires due to the current weather conditions. He advised individuals to stay away from burn sites as it was still hazardous with falling telephone poles and other safety hazards.
Firefighters were still working to put out flare-ups and contain fires in Lahaina, Pulehu/Kihei, and Upcountry Maui as of 9 p.m. local time on Friday, as reported by the County of Mauil Communications Office.
According to the office, a total of 1,418 individuals were present at various emergency evacuation centers.
The search efforts for the blazes are ongoing, with firefighters and a FEMA team equipped with two cadaver-searching dogs.
County officials are urging people to be patient and pay attention to local safety alerts as the work continues.
“You may not have some supplies or power,” Pelletier remarked. “I understand that you don’t have to take everything lightly and get them out quickly.”
People were taken aback by the sudden appearance of fires.
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The residents claim that there were no sirens activated before the fires, and some have even claimed to have been alerted to the danger of the flames by sight or sound.
The AP reported that Hawaii has the world’s largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system, which includes approximately 400 sirens spread across the island chain.
According to department records, Adam Weintraub, a representative of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, stated that Maui’s warning sirens were not activated when the fire started in Lahaina on Tuesday.
He stated that the county opted to dispatch emergency alerts to cell phones, TVs, and radio stations. However, inadequate communication may have prevented those messages from reaching everyone who needed them.
The fire, according to Ventura, progressed rapidly from brush to neighborhoods, rendering it physically unattainable to send messages to emergency management agencies in a timely manner.
“This was an unachievable situation,” Bissen, the mayor of Maui County, told NBC’s TODAY on Friday.
“The winds on that side of the island, as well as in other areas, blew up to 80 miles per hour, while some sustained 45 to 60 to 65 miles an hour,” he said. “I cannot confirm whether the sirens were activated or not, but I know for sure that the fires spread quickly.”
During the news conference on Thursday, he declared that affected areas on the western side of the island, including Lahaina, had to be evacuated, but tourists were advised to stay put due to the roads being blocked by multiple downed power lines.
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On Thursday, Pelletier, the police chief, responded to inquiries regarding the warning system by stating that “nobody anticipated this,” period.
The governor, Green, stated that the tragedy was particularly challenging to predict due to the high winds and low firefighting resources and personnel.
He affirmed that fire safety would be a key focus of the rebuilding process, taking into account the realities of extreme weather.
“It’s apparent that the fire is a result of the climate change that has been observed on the islands,” Green said.
The prevalence of outages impedes search and rescue operations.
The officials are uncertain about the number of missing individuals, as the absence of power, phone, and internet service has impeded their search and communication efforts.
A tracker from PowerOutage.us has reported that over 10,000 customers in Maui are experiencing power outages.
Hawaiian Electric has stated that damage assessment and restoration will commence once areas are safe, and they are asking customers in west Maui to brace for prolonged power outages.
Bill Dorman, the spokesperson for Hawaii Public Radio, informed Morning Edition that buses are being used by both tourists and residents to evacuate the island, with people still arriving from west Maui at the main central airport.
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Non-essential travel to Maui is being discouraged by state officials, and major U.S. airlines are reducing prices and adding flights to encourage travelers to return home.
Those who remain unassisted are uncertain about their ability to return to their homes.
Bissen stated that the possibility of this happening exists as soon as we can guarantee the retrieval of those who have died, despite the challenging work being done on Friday.
Elwira Mehlich and her 14-year-old daughter, Heidi, were among the many evacuees who took shelter at the Hawaii Convention Center on Oahu on Wednesday.
In an interview with Hawaii Public Radio, she mentioned that they were uncertain about when they would be able to return to their Lahaina home and would have to pay for their hotel bills in the interim.
“We are stuck here with two small bags, and we can’t go home.” Mehlich added, “My daughter should be back to school by Monday, but it’s already closed.”
The Office of Consumer Protection in Maui has implemented a price freeze, compelling the island’s retailers to sell their goods at pre-emergency levels until this month.
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Green stated on Thursday that the cost of repairing infrastructure for both private and public entities will amount to billions of dollars, but emphasized that government officials are still concerned about the loss of lives.
A federal major disaster declaration was approved by President Biden on Thursday, providing financial assistance to individuals, governments, and nonprofits impacted by the wildfires.
According to the White House, he expressed his condolences for the loss of life and extensive land and property damage during a phone conversation with Green.
Hawaii is being aided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard.
The agency is deploying search and rescue teams, communications equipment, food, water, and cots for the displaced, as stated by FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.
“The main objective today and the upcoming days is to ensure that we have all the necessary resources to save lives, while also providing assistance to those who are being protected,” she told A Martnez on her journey to Hawaii.
Criswell stated that the disaster declaration empowers FEMA to assist with both the initial response and the island’s recovery, which encompasses providing temporary housing for a long time and compensating jurisdictions and individuals for repair expenses.
“This is a step towards helping people recover from their loss of everything,” she stated. Furthermore, FEMA provides assistance such as crisis counseling and unemployment assistance.
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The state health department is providing crisis mental health services to individuals who are experiencing emotional or psychological distress as a result of the wildfires.
Numerous relief efforts have been initiated by various groups and non-governmental organizations.
Criswell confirms that FEMA will remain in Maui for as long as necessary, subject to the governor’s need for assistance and having an office in Oahu to provide additional support. She added that while it’ll be difficult to see this destruction happening on a community level, one must still work towards their reconstruction.
“The display of a strong human spirit and the solidarity of people, neighbors, and their willingness to help each other’s needs is heartening,” she stated.
Speaking to Morning Edition on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke cautioned that the island and its inhabitants would require a considerable amount of time to recuperate.
“Many people will suffer from mental health issues. They have never lost the businesses they invested in overnight,” she noted. “It will take a considerable amount of time, sometimes even years, for us to replace some of the infrastructure, such as schools and roads.”
Kevin Drew from NPR provided coverage.