Mon. Sep 25th, 2023

The death toll in the Maui wildfires reached 111 Wednesday — and was expected to rise considerably — as many desperate residents searched for missing family members in the wreckage of the fire that decimated an estimated 80% of the historic town of Lahaina.  

FEMA spokesperson Adam Weintraub told reporters Wednesday that the number of people unaccounted for is estimated to be between 1,100 and 1,300. People across the Hawaiian island have been asked to provide DNA samples in an effort to identify human remains.

Only three of the victims have so far been publicly identified: 90-year-old Virginia Dofa, 79-year-old Buddy Jantoc and 74-year-old Robert Dyckman, all of Lahaina.

Dozens of FEMA search and rescue teams with 40 cadaver dogs continue to methodically comb for human remains, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said in a news briefing Wednesday afternoon. At least 38% of the Lahaina fire burn area had been searched.

Dozens Killed In Maui Wildfire Leaving The Town Of Lahaina Devastated
A firefighting helicopter flies near a building that was destroyed by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii.

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Lahaina Bypass Road, the main thoroughfare in and out of Lahaina, was reopened Tuesday night for the first time since the wildfires broke out last week, making it easier for residents and emergency responders to access the city.

However, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier asked residents to exercise caution amid the ongoing search for human remains, warning of health concerns over ash, debris and toxic air.

“There is a difference between need and want,” Pelletier said. “If you need to get over there, go. If you want to get over there, don’t go.”

Michael Richter has been on a dayslong search to find his stepfather.   

“I have run into a lot of people that I understand are tired,” Richter told CBS News. “I’m tired too. I haven’t slept in six days. I just want to identify his body and put him at rest.”

Joe Schilling was going to his friend Corie Bluh’s home when the fires began raging around him.

“He was texting me that now there are four houses burning, and then cars exploding on the road,” Bluh told CBS News. “I said, ‘Try and get out.’ He said, ‘We can’t get out. We can’t see, we can’t breathe.'”

Blue believes Schilling may have died in the fire trying to help others evacuate, but his remains have not been found.

The Tone and Takafua family found four family members — including a 7-year-old girl — inside a burned-out car.

Some who have been reported missing have been found. Weintraub said Wednesday that about 60 people sheltering on a single property during the fire who survived had initially been listed as unaccounted for.

The Lahaina fire has destroyed or damaged at least 2,200 structures, about 86% of which were residential, according to numbers released over the weekend from the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center. 

The exact cause of the wildfires is still unknown. The Hawaii attorney general’s office has launched an investigation into the local government response leading up to and after they broke out on Aug. 8. CBS News has learned that Herman Andaya, chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, had no background in disaster response. Local news site Maui Now reported in 2017 that he was hired over 40 other qualified applicants. 

Survivors said most residents were not evacuated, and many waited days for help to arrive. None of the island’s warning sirens sounded for evacuation.

When asked Wednesday by reporters if he regrets not activating the sirens, Andaya responded, “I do not.”

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded,” Andaya said, noting that the sirens are generally used to warn of tsunamis or approaching storms.

“Had we sounded the sirens that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka (mountainside), and if that was the case, they would have gone into the fire,” Andaya said. “So that is the reason why, it is our protocol, to use WEA [Wireless Emergency Alerts] and EAS [the Emergency Alert System].”

Andaya explained that the agency’s “internal protocol” for wildfires is to use both WEA — text alerts sent to cell phones — and the EAS, which are alerts sent to television and radio. 

“In a wildland fire incident, the (siren) system has not been used, either in Maui or in other jurisdictions around the state,” Andaya said.

Hawaii’s official government website lists “wildfires” as one of the hazards the siren alert system can be used for.

However, with power knocked out in the area and no television or radio, residents reported receiving no text alerts or television or radio notifications.  

Andaya also said that claims “that I’m not qualified, I think, is incorrect.” 

Andaya said that prior to taking the reins of the emergency agency, he served as deputy director of the state Department of Housing and Human Concerns, and spent 11 years as the Maui County mayor’s chief of staff.

During that time, Andaya said, he often reported to “emergency operations” officials and went through “numerous trainings.” 

FEMA now has about 600 personnel on the island to aid in search and recovery efforts, said Marcus Coleman, director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, on Wednesday.

FEMA has approved more than $2.3 million in assistance to more than 1,300 households, Coleman said. 

Approximately 2,000 homes and businesses in Lahaina remain without power, Green said Wednesday. 

About 1,000 hotel rooms have now been made available for displaced residents, the governor added. The state had also set up an Airbnb program with 1,000 available rooms or houses that will be covered by FEMA for use by both evacuees and first responders.

“We’re making plans right now for the long-haul, for the long reconstruction…so we don’t have to take away housing from our local people while we rebuild,” Green said.   

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen noted that school started Wednesday on much of the island, and with their schools destroyed by the fire, many Lahaina students were sent to other campuses.

“Many of these students are survivors of the fires, and some of them lost families, some of them lost homes, many of them lost friends,” Bissen said.    

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are scheduled to visit Maui on Monday, Green said.

Two of three large wildfires that ignited Aug. 8 on Maui are still burning. The Lahaina fire, which has burned about 3.39 square miles, is 85% contained.

Aircraft were conducting water drops on the blaze, Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said Wednesday. Ventura noted that the upcoming forecast, which includes possible high winds and rain, could pose challenges for crews.

“We just want people to remain vigilant as we know weather is coming in, winds are up,” Ventura said.

The Upcountry/Kula fire to the east, which has burned just over one square mile and destroyed 19 homes, is 75% contained.

Ventura said that although the perimeter of the Kula Fire “has not expanded,” there are still “lots of trouble spots, there are lots of hot spots.”

Lilia Luciano and Jonathan Vigliotti contributed to this report. 

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