By Katabella Roberts
As many as 1,000 people are still missing on Hawaii’s Maui Island amid the ongoing wildfires and can’t be contacted, officials said on Aug. 10.
So far, 55 deaths have been confirmed owing to the fast-spreading wildfires which have scorched through large swathes of land, according to a Maui County news release published Thursday.
However, officials have stressed that figure could likely rise as rescuers continue to search for those missing and attempt to control the three fires that continue to rage.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said law enforcement recovery teams “honestly don’t know” the exact number of people who have died in the wildfires.
“And here’s the challenge: there’s no power, no internet, no phone, no radio coverage,” he said, adding that officials were having difficulties contacting those who are missing because of those issues.
“You compound some of that. So when we’re speaking to our officers over there, we need them to get a sat phone as we are recovering,” he said. “I would say that we’ve got approximately, and this is a very fluid number, but let’s say there are a thousand missing people—doesn’t mean that’s how many that have passed. I’m not saying that number at all but because we can’t contact them and because they can’t exactly come into the greater valley as quickly as they would like because they are in shelter … we’re not going to have that number.”
Mr. Pelletier noted that cadaver dogs were being brought in from California and Washington to assist in the search and rescue efforts.
“We have a family assistance center set up, so anyone missing anyone at all, people can go there and give their details,” he said. “If we can reunify people we will, and give notifications if we need to.”
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Fire crews are currently battling three fires in Maui: in Lahaina, a resort city on Maui and the largest tourist destination on the northwest coast; south Maui’s Kihei area; and the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry, which broke out on Tuesday.
So far, the fire in Lahaina is around 80 percent contained, while the fire near the town of Kihei is 70 percent contained, according to officials. Experts are still assessing the extent of the fire in Upcountry.
It is not yet clear exactly what prompted the fires, however, the devastation, fueled by dry conditions and powerful winds from Hurricane Dora, represents the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, drought conditions in Hawaii have worsened over the past week.
Josh Green, the governor of Hawaii, said in a news release Thursday that it is going to take a “great deal of time to recover” from the wildfires, which are believed to have damaged at least 1,700 structures so far, leaving homes and businesses in ruins.
President Joe Biden on Thursday approved the governor’s request for a federal disaster declaration, making funding available to affected individuals in Maui County for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the wildfires.
President Biden also said in a separate statement Wednesday that the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy are supporting response and rescue efforts and the Marines have provided Black Hawk helicopters to fight the fires on the Big Island.
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Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation is working with commercial airlines to help evacuate tourists from Maui, and the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture are ready to support post-fire recovery efforts.
“We have the support from every level of government all the way up to the federal level, especially given President Biden’s approval of my disaster declaration request today,” Mr. Green said. “It will be a tremendous effort, but we will come together as a community and begin working toward rebuilding from this tragedy.”
Amid the ongoing fires, health officials have issued a mandatory “no burn” period for Maui until further notice and have urged residents and visitors to leave the area until the fires are contained. Some 14,000 tourists have already been evacuated from the area.
However, many residents found themselves with just minutes left to evacuate, according to reports, while some were forced to evacuate through just one highway as streets became engulfed with smoke and flames.
Most of those who have escaped are now staying in temporary shelters including in churches and high schools, according to reports, but are struggling with power outages.
More than 11,000 customers in Hawaii were without power on Thursday morning, according to PowerOutage.us.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard said Thursday that at least 17 people had been rescued from the water as they attempted to flee their homes, while 40 others were rescued from the shore.
There have been no further reports of missing persons in the water, however Coast Guard aircrews and surface assets continue to conduct search and rescue operations, it said.
Weather experts have said the strong winds from Hurricane Dora will ease further going into the weekend but warned that this doesn’t necessarily mean the fires “will go away.”
It will, however, help firefighters working to contain the blazes, according to CNN Meteorologist Taylor Ward.