LAHAINA, Hawaii – The death toll from a historic fire that roared through this Maui community rose to 93 Sunday as teams with cadaver dogs picked through the devastation, marking the remnants of homes with a bright orange “X” to signify they had been searched − and “HR” to announce where human remains had been found.
A police roadblock kept some residents out of Lahaina, largely destroyed by the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. More than 1,800 homes and structures were leveled, and hundreds of people were still missing. Maui Police Chief John Pelletier warned the search for the dead was far from over and that the death toll probably would rise.
More than 1,600 people are being housed in shelters, and possibly thousands need someplace to stay, Gov. Josh Green said. State agencies were coordinating with Maui County, the Red Cross, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to move survivors into hotel rooms and vacation rentals, he said, adding: “Help is pouring in both locally and around the world as our hearts are with the people of Maui.”
The death toll surpassed the fatalities in Northern California’s Camp Fire in 2018. That blaze killed 85 and destroyed the town of Paradise.
As of Sunday, the Upcountry/Kula fire that sprawled about 678 acres was 60% contained, Maui officials said in a statement. The Lahaina fire, estimated to stretch across 2,170 acres, is now 85% contained, according to officials.
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∎Hawaiian Electric said Sunday it “brought back online” more than 60% of customers who have been without electricity since Tuesday and they are working to restore power to about 5,000 affected customers in West Maui and Upcountry.
∎The U.S. Department of State granted a fee waiver for people who lost their U.S. passport book or passport card as a result of the wildfires in Hawaii, FEMA said in a statement Sunday.
∎At least two other fires also were burning on Maui. Damage to Lahaina and other towns in the path of fires that have swept across multiple Hawaiian islands was estimated at close to $6 billion, Green said.
∎Green and the Hawaiʻi Housing Finance and Development Corporation are launching a program to connect property owners who would like to offer rooms, dwelling units, houses or other accommodations with Maui residents affected by the fire disaster. Application forms for the Hawaii Fire Relief Housing program will be available online Monday morning, the housing authority said in a statement.
∎Hawaii has been dealing with wildfires for decades, but this time it will take “an incredible amount of time” to recover, Green added. He pledged not to let Lahaina get too expensive for locals after rebuilding.
Residents attend first Sunday Mass since disaster; bishop urges for hope
Parishioners in Hawaii churches mourned the dead and prayed for the missing Sunday as communities began looking ahead to a long recovery from last week’s crushing wildfire that demolished a historic Maui town and killed more than 90 people.
The Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Honolulu celebrated Mass on Sunday at a church in Kapalua — just up the road from fire-ravaged Lahaina — and urged those reeling from the wildfire not to give up hope.
“How could this be a good, loving God allowing such things to happen?” the Most Rev. Clarence “Larry” Silva asked the congregation, The Associated Press reported. “We need to wrestle with that. The worst thing we can do is to give God the silent treatment. If we are angry with God we should tell him so. He can take it. He will still love us.”
Silva later read a message from Pope Francis that said he was praying for first responders and those who had lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods to the wildfires.
After the service, Silva declared “God loves us in tragedies and good times,” the AP reported, and urged those present “to share that faith with others who may lose it or don’t have it so that they can go on and they don’t give up hope.”
Lawsuit filed against utility companies over wildfires
Much of the state was under a “red flag” fire warning when the fires started breaking out Tuesday. No official cause of the Lahaina fire has been determined, but several factors appear to have conspired to create the largest natural disaster in state history.
It’s been a dry summer, and rainfall in Hawaii has declined significantly over the past 30 years. High winds from a passing Hurricane Dora fanned the flames. And climate change has been a recurring theme.
“This is the first time we’ve ever experienced a wildfire in the context of these dry conditions, global warming, and with the hurricane that is just passing us,” Green said.
A class-action lawsuit was filed Saturday against utility companies on behalf of victims and survivors. The lawsuit filed by LippSmith LLP, together with Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis, LLP and Robertson & Associates, LLP, alleges that downed power lines owned and operated by Maui Electric Company, Limited (MECO), Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc. (HECO), Hawaii Electric Light Company, Inc. (HELCO), and their parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. (HEI) “caused the fire.”
The lawsuit, obtained by USA TODAY, also stated that the utility companies “inexcusably kept their power lines energized during forecasted high fire danger conditions” ultimately causing “loss of life, serious injuries, destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people, and damage to many of Hawai‘i’s historic and cultural sites.”
Hawaiian Electric spokesman Jim Kelly stressed in an email that no cause had been determined and that the company will cooperate with authorities investigating the blaze.
“Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible,” Kelly said.
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How many people are missing in Maui?
Officials said they do not have a final count of how many people are missing, but some estimates have put the figure at 1,000 people.
Two bodies recovered from the devastation have been identified using DNA, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said. He encouraged relatives of people still unaccounted for to visit the family assistance center in Kahului to submit DNA samples, and he expressed frustration at the difficulty in identifying remains found amid the rubble.
“We pick up the remains and they fall apart,” Pelletier said. “When we find our family and our friends, the remains that we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal.”
Sen. Hirono: No excuses for tragedy
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, speaking Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, addressed claims of residents who said they had little or no warning in the hours and minutes before the fires swept through their neighborhoods. Many locals said authorities were woefully unprepared for the disaster. The state attorney general’s review of the disaster will include a look at when sirens were sounded and other actions were taken, the Democrat said.
“I am not going to make any excuses for this tragedy,” Hirono said. “But we are really focused, as far as I’m concerned, on the need for rescue and, well, location of, we know, sadly, more bodies.”
The state, she said, is in a period of “shock and loss.” She said President Joe Biden called her to pledge his support − and was asked if Biden should declare a climate emergency.
“We very much need to acknowledge that climate change is upon us,” she said, adding that “there are whole states … where you can’t even use the words climate change because they still have a head-in-the-sand attitude.”
Damage to historic Lahaina ‘deeply felt’ by native Hawaiians
Lahaina dates back centuries and was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the early 1800s. Lahaina was “a major whaling port and fishing town in the 1800s due to its prime location on whale migration routes, calm ocean conditions and endless days of perfect sunshine,” the town of about 13,000 people says on its website.
Lahaina was home to the sacred Moku‘ula palace, the center of the kingdom and the burial home to many “ali‘i” − chiefs.
“The loss of any ʻāina (land) is deeply felt by our community, but the destruction we’ve seen in Lahaina will be a scar felt for generations to come,” the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement said in a statement.
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What do we know about the death count in Maui?
Officials were searching through the rubble to find answers this week. Residents were being kept away from much of the 5-square-mile area “full of our loved ones,” Pelletier said.
He said the primary objective was to ensure the proper handling and identification of the dead while maintaining the safety of the community and public safety personnel. Hazards remain, such as toxic particles from smoldering embers, he added.
Pelletier said residents will not be allowed to return until it has been declared safe by hazmat teams. Anyone entering the disaster area is subject to a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine, he warned.
“We are asking for the public’s assistance to please be patient and not rush to return,” Pelletier said. “We understand that this is a trying time for everyone, and thank you for your cooperation and understanding as we work through this challenging period together.”
Agencies join forces to support Maui amid fire disaster
Maui has received an influx of state and federal agency support to assist in disaster relief. As of Sunday, more than 250 people from FEMA were deployed to assist Hawaii, the agency said in a statement.
An additional 200 members of the Hawaii National Guard are expected to join those on the ground in Maui in the coming days, according to FEMA.
The U.S. Coast Guard has been tasked with identifying structural damage to the Lahaina harbor, according to FEMA. The agency is using sonar technology to conduct underwater surveys. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will also assist in clearing up roads and stabilizing electric service, and the Environmental Protection Agency was assigned to household hazardous waste removal.
Since the fires began, the American Red Cross and its partners have provided nearly 2,900 overnight shelter stays, FEMA officials said. The organization and Maui County will run six shelters where people can gather essential resources like food, water, and hygiene kits.
Donations needed after Maui fire
Last week the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement helped start the Kako‘o Maui Match Donation Fund with a goal to match up to $100,000 in donations. The goal was quickly reached and was increased to $1.5 million, which also has been met.
Donations are still being accepted and the council said 100% of proceeds will go to support relief efforts. Information on how to donate can be found here.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, of the Hawaii State Department of Defense, asked those who want to donate supplies or volunteer to do so through the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. James Kunane Tokioka, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said the governor also has asked people with vacant homes or vacation rentals to help shelter people in need.
Several shelters are open, and local organizations are collecting donations.
USA TODAY compiled resources for Americans to help people and animals in Hawaii.
Contributing: The Associated Press