Hawaii’s governor warned that scores more people could be found dead following the Maui wildfires as search crews go street by street through neighbourhoods where the flames galloped as fast as a mile a minute across the landscape.
The blazes that consumed most of the historic town of Lahaina, are already the deadliest in the US in more than a century, with a death toll of at least 96.
“We are prepared for many tragic stories,” Governor Josh Green told CBS Mornings in a recorded interview that was aired Monday. “They will find 10 to 20 people per day, probably, until they finish. And it’s probably going to take 10 days. It’s impossible to guess, really.”
As cellphone service has slowly been restored, the number of people missing dropped to about 1300 from over 2000, Green said.
Twenty cadaver dogs and dozens of searchers are making their way through blocks reduced to ash.
“Right now, they’re going street by street, block by block between cars, and soon they’ll start to enter buildings,” Jeff Hickman, director of public affairs for the Hawaii Department of Defense, said Monday on NBC’s “Today.”
Such crews had covered just 3 per cent of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Saturday.
The blaze that swept into centuries-old Lahaina nearly a week ago destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000, leaving a grid of gray rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes. That fire has been 85 per cent contained, according to the county. Another blaze known as the Upcountry fire has been 60 per cent contained, officials said.
“There’s very little left there,” Green said of Lahaina in a video update Sunday, adding that “an estimated value of $5.6 billion has gone away”.
Even where the fire has retreated, authorities have warned that toxic byproducts may remain, including in drinking water, after the flames spewed poisonous fumes. And many people simply have no home to return to. Authorities plan to house them in hotels and holiday rentals.
Many people have gathered at the War Memorial Gymnasium in Wailuku, which has been serving as a shelter. Among the visitors was Oprah Winfrey, who told Hawaii News Now that she has delivered personal hygiene products, towels and water in recent days.
Winfrey, a part-time Maui resident, warned that news crews will eventually depart from the destruction, and the world will move on. But she said, “we’re all still going to be here trying to figure out what is the best way to rebuild … I will be here for the long haul, doing what I can”.
The cause of the wildfires is under investigation, and Green said authorities would also examine their response. One fire, for instance, was thought to be out but later flared again. Before the blaze engulfed Lahaina, Maui County officials also failed to activate sirens that would have warned the entire population and instead relied on social media posts.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the flames on Maui raced through parched brush. One fire moved as fast as 1.6km every minute, according to Green.
“With those kinds of winds and 1000-degree temperatures, ultimately all the pictures that you will see will be easy to understand,” he said.
The fires are Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. They also surpassed the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California that left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise.
Many gathered Sunday to mourn the dead. Maria Lanakila Church in Lahaina was spared from the flames that wiped out most of the surrounding community, but with search-and-recovery efforts ongoing, its members attended Mass up the road. The Bishop of Honolulu, the Reverend Clarence “Larry” Silva, presided.
Taufa Samisoni said his uncle, aunt, cousin and the cousin’s 7-year-old son were found dead inside a burned car. Samisoni’s wife, Katalina, said the family would draw comfort from Silva’s reference to the Bible story of how Jesus’ disciple Peter walked on water and was saved from drowning.
“If Peter can walk on water, yes we can. We will get to the shore,” she said, her voice quivering.
Meanwhile, Hawaii officials urged tourists to avoid travelling to Maui as many hotels prepared to house evacuees and first responders.
Green said 500 hotel rooms will be made available for locals who have been displaced. An additional 500 rooms will be set aside for workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some hotels will carry on with normal business to help preserve jobs and sustain the local economy, Green said.
The state wants to work with Airbnb to make sure that rental homes can be made available for locals.
J.P. Mayoga, a cook at the Westin Maui in Kaanapali, is still making breakfast, lunch and dinner on a daily basis. But instead of serving hotel guests, he’s been feeding the roughly 200 hotel employees and their family members who have been living there since Tuesday.
His home and that of his father were spared. But his girlfriend, two young daughters, father and another local are all staying in a hotel room together, as it is safer than Lahaina, which is covered in toxic debris.
“Everybody has their story, and everybody lost something. So everybody can be there for each other, and they understand what’s going on in each other’s lives,” he said of his co-workers at the hotel.