The search for the ravages of the wildfire on Maui revealed a barren landscape of burned-out neighborhoods and landmarks, with at least 53 fatalities reported and survivors recounting how they made isolating their lives to the point of wearing only clothes.
The historic Lahaina flyover displayed entire neighborhoods that had once belonged to vibrant color and island life, with blocks covered in rubble and blackened foundations, including along the famous Front Street where tourists flocked to dine and shop. Smoke was evident as smoke billowed over the town, which has been in existence since the 18th century.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green informed The Associated Press that Laguna, with some exceptions, had been burned down and over 1,000 structures were destroyed by fires that were still burning.
According to Green, the death count is expected to rise as search and rescue operations persist, and officials predict it will be the most fatal natural disaster in the state since a 1961 tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island.
“We feel a sense of sadness,” Green conveyed.
Among the many businesses that were destroyed in the town was Tiffany Kidder Winn’s gift store, Whaler’Slocker. As she assessed the damage on Thursday, she noticed several burned-out vehicles with bodies inside.
“They appeared to be attempting to escape from the front streets, but were stuck in traffic,” she said. Later, she witnessed a body leaning against eaves.
The extent of the damage was so great that Winn couldn’t pinpoint where she was, as all the landmarks were gone.
A dry summer and powerful hurricane winds ignited a fire on Tuesday, which caught Maui off guard by moving through the parched vegetation and then feeding on houses and other objects in its path.
The death toll reached 36 by late Wednesday, marking the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which claimed at least 85 lives and destroyed the town of Paradise. The Hawaii tolling may increase as rescuers reach areas that were previously inaccessible due to the three wild fires, including the one in Lahaina that was 80% contained on Thursday. Over 270 structures have been destroyed or damaged, and many people have suffered injuries, some with critical illnesses.
Adam Weintraub, a representative of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, stated that they are still in the search for life and that Search and rescue is still primarily important.
According to Weintraub, search and rescue teams won’t be able to access certain areas until the fire lines are secured and they can safely reach them.
Some individuals were unable to respond quickly due to the flames, leading some to flee into the ocean. A video taken on Tuesday night in Lahaina by Bosco Bae showed fire burning almost every building on the street while sirens were playing and sparks from wind were running. Baé was evacuated to Hawaii’s main airport and was waiting to return home.
The fire alarms alerted Marlon Vasquez, a cook from Guatemala who arrived in the U.S. in January 2022, and he stated that it was too late to escape in his car.
He told The Associated Press on Thursday that the fire was so intense that it almost took hold after he and his family ran from an evacuation center at a gymnasium.
The roads were filled with vehicles and the smoke was so strong that Vasquez and his brother Eduardo had to vomit. He stated that he’s not sure whether his roommates or neighbors were safe after their escape.
During their escape to safety under cloudy skies, Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso, a couple from Lahaina, recounted the terrifying experience. They had earlier gone to the supermarket to purchase water, but were forced to return home after only being able to take clinging clothes due to smoke rising from the bushes surrounding them.
Kawaakoa, who was 34 years old, stated at a shelter that they had barely survived and were uncertain about the remains of their apartment.
The family ran away and called 911 when they saw the Hale Mahaolu senior living facility burst into flames across the road.
The family of Louise Abihai, the grandmother of Chelsey Vierra who lived at Hale Mahaolu, is unaware if she left.
The family is keeping an eye on shelter lists and contacting the hospital. Vierra, who fled the fire, reported that there was no communication. “We have found our loved one, but we don’t know where she went.”
The island has experienced sluggish communication, with 911, landline, and cellular service intermittently present. Some areas of Maui were also without power.
Ed Sniffen, the state transportation director, reported that around 11,000 tourists left Maui on Wednesday and that at least 1,500 others are expected to leave on Thursday. Meanwhile, officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to accommodate the thousands who have been displaced.
On Wednesday night, a broad strip of land in Kihei, located southeast of Lahaina, was illuminated by flaming blazes as fierce winds carried through buildings and trees. A black and orange patchwork of burnt earth and convulsing hot spots left them open for exploration.
Hurricane Dora’s strong winds caused the fires, which were fueled by burning fuel. This is the most recent in a string of disasters worldwide caused by extreme weather during this summer. Experts believe that climate change is making such events more likely to happen.
The occurrence of wildfires in Hawaii is not unusual, but the recent weather conditions led to a devastating fire, and the high winds that ensued contributed to the disaster, according to Thomas Smith, an associate professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Despite no injuries or destroyed homes, fires are currently raging on Hawaii’s Big Island, according to Mayor Mitch Roth.
Communication was disrupted, causing many to struggle with reaching out for friends and family. Some individuals were using social media to communicate with each other. Maui authorities established a Family Assistance Center at the Kahului Community Center to aid those in finding the missing person.
According to Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara of the Hawaii State Department of Defense, officials were working to restore communication, provide water, and potentially recruit law enforcement officers. He also stated that National Guard helicopters had distributed 150,000 gallons of water on the fires.
14 individuals were rescued by the Coast Guard after jumping into the water to escape the flames and smoke.
The immediate cause of the fires has not been investigated by officials, as stated by Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. on Wednesday.
President Joe Biden announced a significant disaster on Maui while traveling in Utah and promised to expedite the federal response to provide assistance to those who have lost loved ones or homes damaged or destroyed. He also stated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is mobilizing emergency personnel on the island and simplifying requests for help.
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