Maui like a ‘war zone’ as death toll from wildfires reaches 93
By Mike Blake and Marco Garcia
KAHULUI, Hawaii (Reuters) – Hawaii Governor Josh Green on Sunday called a part of the island of Maui that was devastated by wildfires a “war zone,” as the death toll reached 93 and was expected to keep climbing.
A fast-moving blaze engulfed the northwest coast of Maui on Tuesday, leveling the historic resort town of Lahaina and obliterating nearly everything in its path.
Days after the inferno, crews of firefighters were still battling flare-ups, and cadaver dogs were sifting through the town’s charred ruins in search of victims as survivors and officials grappled with the scale of the disaster.
“Right now, we are still in the throes of the acute phase of this recovery, meaning that we’re still recovering the tragic loss of life,” Green told MSNBC on Sunday. “We’re at 93 (victims) now … it’s a war zone, but the help is incredible.”
Green, who warned on Saturday that the death toll would rise, again vowed to investigate the response to the blaze and the emergency notification systems after some residents questioned whether more could have been done to warn them before their homes were destroyed.
Some people were forced to wade into the Pacific Ocean to escape.
Sirens stationed around the island – intended to warn of impending natural disasters – never sounded, and widespread power and cellular outages hampered other forms of alerts.
“We’ll know soon whether or not they did enough to get those sirens going,” he said in the TV interview.
President Joe Biden on Sunday told reporters asking whether he planned to visit Maui in the coming days, “we’re looking into it.”
The death toll made the blaze Hawaii’s worst natural disaster, surpassing a tsunami that killed 61 people in 1960, a year after Hawaii became a U.S. state.
The death toll also exceeded that of the 2018 fire in the town of Paradise, California, in which 86 people perished, and was the highest from a wildfire since 1918, when 453 people died in the Cloquet fire in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.
Officials have secured 1,000 hotel rooms for people who lost their homes and are arranging for rental properties to serve as housing at no cost to families, Green said on Saturday. More than 1,400 people had been taken in at emergency shelters.
The cost to rebuild Lahaina was estimated at $5.5 billion, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with more than 2,200 structures damaged or destroyed and more than 2,100 acres (850 hectares) burned.
FEMA Director Deanne Criswell said the agency had 150 people on the ground, with additional search teams and dogs arriving within a day or two.
Authorities began allowing residents back into west Maui on Friday, although the fire zone in Lahaina remained barricaded. The governor said the area is a hazardous site due to dangerous fumes from the smoldering ruins.
Hundreds of people were still missing, though a precise count was not clear.
It was “too grim” of a scene in Lahaina after the natural disaster struck, Green said on Sunday.
“When we tried to lift and embrace those that we’ve lost, there’s nothing there practically,” he said. The state of the bodies could complicate identification efforts, with only two victims identified as of Saturday, Maui County officials said.
The disaster began just after midnight on Tuesday when a brush fire was reported in the town of Kula, roughly 35 miles (55 km) from Lahaina.
About five hours later, power was knocked out in Lahaina. In updates posted on Facebook that morning, Maui County said a three-acre (1.2-hectare) brush fire cropped up in Lahaina around 6:30 a.m. but had been contained by 10 a.m.
Subsequent updates were focused on the Kula fire, which had burned hundreds of acres and forced some local evacuations. But at around 3:30 p.m., according to the county’s updates, the Lahaina fire flared up.
Some residents began evacuating while people including hotel guests on the town’s west side were instructed to shelter in place.
In the following hours, the county posted a series of evacuation orders on Facebook, though it was not clear whether residents were receiving them as people frantically fled the fast-advancing flames.
Some witnesses said they had little warning, describing their terror as the blaze destroyed the town around them in what seemed to be a matter of minutes.
(Reporting by Mike Blake in Kahului, Hawaii, and Marco Garcia in Honolulu, Hawaii; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren, Jorge Garcia and Sandra Stojanovic; Writing by Maria Caspani and Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Mallard and Paul Simao)
This article originally appeared on www.aol.com