Hawaii officials worked painstakingly to identify the 99 people confirmed killed in wildfires that ravaged Maui and expected to release the first names, even as teams intensified the search for more dead in neighbourhoods reduced to ash.
A week after a blaze tore through historic Lahaina, many who survived have started moving into hundreds of hotel rooms set aside for displaced locals while donations of food, ice, water and other essentials have poured in.
Crews using cadaver dogs have scoured about 25 per cent of the search area, the police chief said on Monday. Governor Josh Green asked for patience and space to search properly as authorities became overwhelmed with requests to visit the burn area.
“For those people who have walked into Lahaina because they really wanted to see, know that they’re very likely walking on iwi,” he said at a news conference on Maui, using the Hawaiian word for bones.
Just three bodies have been identified so far and officials will start releasing names today, according to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, who renewed an appeal for families with missing relatives to provide DNA samples.
Green warned that scores more bodies could be found. The wildfires, some of which have not yet been fully contained, are already the deadliest in the US in more than a century. Their cause was under investigation.
Asked by Hawaii News Now if children are among the missing, Green said “tragically, yes”.
“When the bodies are smaller, we know it’s a child.”
He added that some of the sites being searched “are too much to share or see from just a human perspective”.
Another complicating factor, Green said, is that stormy weather is forecast for the weekend, prompting discussions on how to handle high winds. Officials are mulling whether to preemptively power down for a short time, “because right now all of the infrastructure is weaker”.
The local power company has already faced criticism for not shutting off power as strong winds buffeted a parched area under high risk for fire. It’s not clear whether the utility’s equipment played a role in igniting the flames.
Hawaiian Electric Co Inc president and CEO Shelee Kimura said many factors go into a decision to cut power, including the impact on people who rely on specialised medical equipment and concerns that shutting off power in the fire area would have knocked out water pumps.
Green has said the flames on Maui raced as fast as 1.6km every minute in one area, fuelled by dry grass and propelled by strong winds from a passing hurricane.
And he was conflicted about the anticipated storm.
“I want the rain, ironically, but that’s why we’re racing right now to do all the recovery that we can, because winds or heavy rain will make it even harder to get the final determination of who we lost,” Green said.
Authorities have paused a system that had allowed Lahaina residents and others to visit devastated areas with police permits. Kevin Eliason said when he was turned away, the line of cars waiting to get a permit was at least 5km long.
“It’s a joke,” Eliason said. “It’s just crazy. They didn’t expect, probably, tens of thousands of people to show up there.”
The blaze that swept into centuries-old Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000. That fire has been 85 per cent contained, according to the county. Another blaze known as the Upcountry fire has been 65 per cent contained.
Even where the fire has retreated, authorities have warned that toxic byproducts may remain, including in drinking water, after the flames spewed poisonous fumes. That has left many unable to return home.
The Red Cross said 575 evacuees were spread across five shelters on Monday, including the War Memorial Gymnasium in Wailuku. Green said thousands of people will need housing for at least 36 weeks. He said Tuesday that about 450 hotel rooms and 1000 Airbnb rentals were becoming available.
“We want to get everyone out of all of the shelters by week’s end,” he told Hawaii News Now.
More than 3000 people have registered for federal assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), and that number was expected to grow.
Fema was providing US$700 to displaced residents to cover the cost of food, water, first aid and medical supplies, in addition to qualifying coverage for the loss of homes and personal property.
The Biden administration was seeking US$12 billion ($20b) more for the Government’s disaster relief fund as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress.
Green said “leaders all across the board” have helped by donating more than 454,000kg of food as well as ice, water, nappies and baby formula. Some active duty US Marines have also joined the aid efforts.
“When people are hurting, the community steps up and takes care of each other,” Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke said on Monday.
As firefighters battled the flames last week, a flurry of court actions were lodged over water access.
Some state officials say not enough water is available for firefighters in central Maui, and blame a recent ruling by an environmental judge. The ruling did not directly affect water supplies to Lahaina, the attorney general’s office said on Monday.
On Wednesday morning, Judge Jeffrey Crabtree suspending for 48 hours the water caps he had imposed. He also authorised water distribution as requested by Maui fire officials, the county, or the state until further notice.
But the state attorney general’s office filed a petition with the state Supreme Court blaming Crabtree for the lack of water for firefighting. The state asked the court not to let Crabtree alter the amount of water to be diverted or to put a hold on his restrictions until the petition is resolved.
It’s part of a long-running battle between environmentalists and private companies over the diversion of water from streams that started during Hawaii’s sugar plantation past.