POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

At least 101 people were killed in Maui’s wildfires, Hawaii governor says

Aug 15, 2023, 9:30 PM

Two people Sunday examine a burned house after an inferno destroyed much of the historic Maui resor...

Two people Sunday examine a burned house after an inferno destroyed much of the historic Maui resort town of Lahaina. Photo credit: Sandy Hooper/USA TODAY/Reuters

(CNN) — The death toll in the Maui wildfires has risen to 101, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CNN Tuesday, a week after the flames started sweeping through parts of the island.

The governor’s update on the death toll – up from 99 a day before – came on a day authorities said only four of the dead had been identified. Officials will release names after their relatives are notified, Maui County officials said Tuesday.

Authorities had gone through about 32% of the search area as of Tuesday morning, the county said. With so much still to search, the death toll still could rise significantly, Green said earlier this week.

“It is a tragedy beyond tragedies,” the governor said Monday about the fires.

Most of the people found dead had been out in the open, in cars or in the water in western Maui’s hard-hit Lahaina area, Green told CNN. As more teams and cadaver dogs join the effort, the search is expanding through wiped-out neighborhoods.

It’s unclear how many people are unaccounted for, in part because of communication gaps, Green said Monday. “A lot of people had to run and left all they had behind. They don’t have their phones – the phones are incinerated,” he said.

A portable morgue unit has arrived in Hawaii and will help authorities identify and process remains with equipment such as examination tables, X-ray units and laboratory equipment, Jonathan Greene, deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said in a Monday news conference that he hopes searchers will have covered 85% to 90% by the weekend.

“We started with one dog. We are at 20,” Pelletier said Monday. “We can only move as fast as we can, but we got the right amount of workers and teams doing it.”

Crews are going through what used to be homes, business and historic landmarks burned to the ground after wind-whipped wildfires began spreading erratically August 8, suddenly engulfing homes, forcing harrowing escapes and likely displacing thousands.

“Nothing can prepare you for what I saw during my time here, and nothing can prepare them for the emotional toll of the impact that this severe event has taken on them,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Monday.

The Maui wildfires are the deadliest in the US in more than 100 years, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

As firefighting and search efforts continue, here’s the latest on what’s happening on Maui:

• Burn victims treated: Nine people injured in the wildfires have been admitted to a specialized burn unit in Honolulu, the only burn unit in the state and the Pacific Region, according to Straub Medical Center.

• President Biden touts future visit: The president told reporters Tuesday he will visit Hawaii with the first lady “as soon as we can.” Biden pledged the state would have “every asset they need” for ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts. The president mourned the loss of life and “generations of native Hawaiian history turned into ruin” while reiterating a robust federal response, even as some on Maui have voiced frustration at the slow pace of aid.

• Calls to provide DNA: Those with missing family members have been urged to contact authorities to provide DNA samples, which would help in the identification process. Only three of those killed could be identified through fingerprints, Pelletier said, stressing the need for the DNA swabs.

• Homes lost: More than 2,200 structures have been destroyed or damaged by the fires – about 86% of them residential, Green said.

• ‘Shelters are starting to empty’: More than 400 hotel rooms are available for those displaced, and 1,400 Airbnb units will be ready for them Tuesday, Green said. And 160 people are offering to share their houses, he said. “We’ve already placed 220 families into housing. So you can see the shelters are starting to empty,” Green said.

• Power coming back: The fires wiped out both power and communications for thousands. Hawaiian Electric announced it had restored power to about 80% of its customers on Maui. On Monday, crews restored power to schools and county facilities in some areas of Lahaina, the utility said Tuesday. “The focus continues to be safely restoring areas that provide essential public services as well as facilities serving first responders and the emergency response efforts,” officials said.

• Lawsuit over power lines: Hawaiian Electric is facing a lawsuit claiming power lines blown over by high winds helped to cause the destructive Lahaina wildfire, though an official cause has not yet been determined.

• Coast Guard shifts focus: The US Coast Guard in Maui is moving from search and rescue mode to containing potentially hazardous materials in the ocean left behind by the fires. Sonar technology was brought in and a 100-foot boom placed at the mouth of the Lahaina Harbor, the service said.

Stories emerge of those lost in fires

Families of two victims told CNN their loved ones died while trying to escape the Lahaina fire.

Maui resident Carole Hartley, 60, and her partner, Charles Paxton, were trying to evacuate when the smoke from the fire overwhelmed the couple and they got separated, her sister Donna Gardner Hartley told CNN.

Winds were vicious and they couldn’t see through dark smoke that “felt like a tornado,” Gardner Hartley recalled Charles telling her.

“They kept calling each other’s name,” Gardner Hartley said in a Facebook post. “He was screaming, ‘Run, run, run, Carole run.’ He eventually could not hear her anymore.”

Paxton, who was found by his friends, organized a search for Hartley after he was treated for his injuries, the sister said.

Hartley’s remains eventually were found on the couple’s property over the weekend, Gardner Hartley told CNN.

Hartley was described by her sister as a free spirit who “always looked for the good in people and always helped others.”

Franklin “Frankie” Trejos, 68, also died trying to escape the Lahaina fire, his niece Kika Perez Grant told CNN.

The family got a call from Trejos’ roommate letting them know that the island was on fire and that he wasn’t sure if Trejos had made it out alive, Perez Grant said.

“We kept hope alive, but then his roommate called us again a few hours later to tell us he had found Uncle Frankie’s remains,” Perez Grant said.

Trejos and his roommate tried to save their property at first, but then decided to leave in their own cars when they realized it was impossible, Perez Grant said.

The roommate later found Trejos’ car a few blocks from the house, with Trejos’ remains on top of the roommate’s dog, which also died, Perez Grant said.

Trejos, a native of Costa Rica who had moved to the United States at a young age, lived in Lahaina for the last 30 years, according to his niece.

“Uncle Frankie was a kind man, a nature lover, an animal lover and he loved his friends and his families with this whole heart,” Perez Grant said. “He loved adventure and was a free spirit.”

Questions over siren systems and fire hydrants

As the fires quickly advanced on the historic town of Lahaina last week, first responders encountered weak water pressure and fire hydrants running dry, several firefighters told the New York Times.

“There was just no water in the hydrants,” Keahi Ho, one of the firefighters working in Lahaina, told the paper.

Another firefighter, unnamed by the paper because he was not authorized to discuss the operation, said his truck connected to a hydrant but the water pressure was too weak to be of use, and the flames spread beyond firefighters’ ability to contain them.

CNN sought comment and information from the Maui County Department of Water Supply.

Asked about reports that firefighters didn’t have enough water to tackle the blazes on August 8, the governor told reporters in a news conference Monday: “One thing that people need to understand, especially from far away, is there’s been a great deal of water conflict on Maui for many years.”

“We have a difficult time on Maui. In other rural areas, getting enough water for houses, for our people, for any response,” Green said.

West Maui residents have described the fires jumping across highways and showing up in their yards or their engulfing homes without warning, forcing them to run for their lives.

Hawaii’s network of about 400 alarms, meant to alert residents to tsunamis and other natural disasters, did not activate as the fire spread August 8, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub.

Although the emergency response is still being reviewed, authorities believe the sirens were “essentially immobilized” by the extreme heat, Green told CNN on Monday.

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At least 101 people were killed in Maui’s wildfires, Hawaii governor says