© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Smoke billows from flames near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, U.S. August 9, 2023. Dustin Johnson/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
By Jorge Garcia and Mike Blake
KAHULUI, Hawaii (Reuters) -Search teams on Monday resumed the painstaking, dangerous task of picking through the ashes of Lahaina for more victims of the Maui wildfires, with the death toll reaching 99 and hundreds of people still unaccounted for.
Nearly a week after the fast-moving fire leveled most of the historic resort town on Tuesday, many residents were still unable to return to the site of the fire because of the risks posed by possible hot spots and toxic fumes.
Officials have cautioned that identifying victims would be a
grim and difficult task, because the fire burned so intensely that metal structures had melted.
At least 2,200 buildings were destroyed in the fire, 86% of them residential, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said in a video posted on social media on Monday. He later told a news conference the death toll had risen to 99, up from 96 earlier on Monday.
The blaze was the deadliest natural disaster in the state of Hawaii’s history and the toll of 96 is the largest number of deaths from an American wildfire since 1918, when 453 people died in the Cloquet Fire in Minnesota.
“The area my home is in, they’re still searching for bodies,” said Chris Loeffler, 35, whose mother and relatives fled his childhood home last Tuesday when the flames reached a block and a half away. The wooden plantation-style home – most likely destroyed – had been in his family for five generations.
At a White House briefing on Monday, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell said more cadaver dogs were on their way to Lahaina, but that the search was “extremely hazardous” and would take time.
“There are structures that are partially standing that engineers have to clear first to make sure it’s safe for the search-and-rescue teams to go into,” Criswell said.
More than 3,200 residents of Hawaii have registered to receive federal assistance, and that number is expected to rise, Jeremy Greenberg, FEMA’s director of response operations, told reporters. FEMA has 300 personnel in Hawaii assisting state and local officials, from search and rescue teams to structural engineers to mortuary service personnel, Greenberg said.
Meanwhile, the search for missing loved ones persisted.
A crowd-sourced database circulating on social media showed about 1,130 individuals listed as “not located” on a list of about 5,200 people as of Monday afternoon. The database includes names collected from “missing persons” notices posted at shelters as well as information submitted by loved ones.
The American Red Cross had received over 2,500 calls from people trying to find and reunite with relatives and friends missing from the fire, said Chris Young, senior director for operations and readiness.
“We’ve resolved about 800 of the 2,500 so far as we work through it,” Young told reporters on Monday. “Communication on the island is still intermittent in many locations.”
The cause of the fire has not been determined, and many survivors have said they went unwarned before the inferno rapidly swept through town, fueled by wind gusts that reached 80 miles (130 km) per hour. Some people were forced to flee into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames.
Two lawsuits have already been filed on behalf of residents against Hawaiian Electric Industries (NYSE:), claiming its equipment was responsible. A spokesperson for the utility told CNN it would not comment on pending litigation; the company has said it will cooperate with the state in investigating the cause of the fire.
Officials have urged tourists to consider rescheduling travel plans to West Maui, and visitors have largely heeded calls to depart the island. About 46,000 people had flown out of Kahului Airport, Maui’s main airport, between Wednesday and Saturday, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Some residents voiced their frustration with tourists who chose to stay in Maui.
“We don’t want tourists here at all,” Basil Spring said in a post on Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We need the time to heal as an island and to take care of our Lahaina ohana,” he said, using a Hawaiian term for “family.”
“Get out and stay out.”
But businesses in other parts of the island were concerned that cutting off tourism for all of Maui could hurt workers elsewhere.
“50% of our visitor economy still exists and is thriving in South Maui,” the Maui Fresh Streatery food truck posted on Facebook (NASDAQ:). “Lahaina and West Maui is CLOSED for tourism. Respect our time to deal with this tragedy. Don’t try to sneak in and play tourist there because it is sacred ground. But I truly feel the Maui is still open.”