Hawaii residents are just beginning the long process of identifying and mourning the victims of a catastrophic wildfire that tore through the town of Lahaina, killing at least 99.
Gov. Josh Green confirmed the new death toll, three higher than previously reported, at a news conference Monday. He said recovery operations are proceeding “extremely vigorously,” but cautioned that overall, “it will take time.”
Gov. Green also said the state has secured 402 hotel rooms and 1,400 units from Airbnb to house people who lost their homes in the fire. In addition, 160 people whose homes were spared are offering them to their neighbors in need, the governor said.
Earlier Monday, FEMA Director Deanne Criswell joined a White House press briefing remotely from Maui after viewing the destruction.
“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,” Criswell said.
The death toll exceeded the 2018 Camp Fire, which was blamed for 85 deaths. The 1918 Cloquet Fire in northern Minnesota was believed to have killed more than 450 people.
The Lahaina fire is also the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii state history.
Burn Patients Being Treated In Honolulu
On the island of Oahu, several burn victims were flown from Lahaina to the Straub Medical Center in Honolulu. Travis Clegg, chief operating officer for the medical center, told weather.com that nine patients have been treated for burns at the hospital since the fires began on Maui, but he did not disclose the condition of those patients.
25% Of The Area Searched By Cadaver Dogs So Far
With the help of cadaver dogs, search crews are making better progress on searching the rubble for additional victims. As of Monday, 25% of the destroyed structures had been searched, up from just 3% at the previous update, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier told the Associated Press.
The number of residents who are missing or unaccounted for has dropped from 2,000 to about 1,300, Gov. Josh Green told CBS in an interview aired Monday. He attributes that decline to cell service being slowly restored, which has allowed more residents to get in touch with loved ones.
Another Maui Fire Burns Homes
In the Upcountry town of Kula, well to the southeast of Lahaina, at least 19 homes burned when a separate wildfire spread rapidly, according to Hawaii News Now. No deaths have been reported in that fire, the report added. As of Monday, that blaze had burned more than a square mile and was 65% contained.
Meanwhile, the fire that destroyed most of Lahaina continued to burn away from the town and was 85% contained as of the last update.
‘It’s Tragic – This Hopeless Feeling’
For relatives who are still waiting on word about whether their loved ones died or survived, the past few days have been incredibly difficult.
“It’s tragic – this hopeless feeling,” Terra Thomas, who lives in North Carolina but is still waiting to hear about her aunt, Terri Thomas, told the New York Times. Terri’s Lahaina home was destroyed in the fires.
Families say it is taking far too long to recover the victims and identify those who died, but officials stress that the magnitude of devastation combined with the remoteness of Maui means the process will be slower than with other disasters, the report added.
For now, loved ones have been told to take DNA tests so it is less difficult to identify the remains of victims who are located during the lengthy search through the destroyed structures.
Estimated Number Of Structures Destroyed Increased
Gov. Josh Green said in a Sunday video address that an estimated 2,700 structures were destroyed by the wildfire in Lahaina. Rebuilding costs are estimated at more than $5.5 billion, according to a report released Saturday by FEMA.
Green added that there is “very little left” of the town.
“We know the teams are going in an ongoing fashion and discovering more tragedies,” he said, referring to the dozens of searchers who are combing through the rubble with the help of 20 cadaver dogs in an effort to recover every victim of the catastrophic blaze.
Cause Of The Fires Remains Under Investigation
Officials were still examining clues to determine what sparked the blazes.
“We don’t know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation – so that’s dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry,” Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard, told reporters.
The Lahaina fire is the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii state history.