Maui wildfire survivors decry lack of warnings as death toll rises

Published On 14 Aug 2023

Some residents refuse to vacate towns burned down to the ground, citing fear that they will not be able to return.

Officials have confirmed 96 deaths and warned that the figure was likely to rise as recovery crews with cadaver dogs work their way through hundreds of homes and burned-out vehicles in Lahaina.

The historic coastal town was almost destroyed by the fast-moving inferno early on Wednesday and survivors said there had been no warnings.

When asked on Sunday why none of the island’s sirens had been activated, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono said she would wait for the results of an investigation announced by the state’s attorney general.

“I’m not going to make any excuses for this tragedy,” Hirono, a Democrat, told CNN.

“We are really focused, as far as I’m concerned, on the need for rescue, and, sadly, the location of more bodies.”

More than 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed as the fire tore through Lahaina, according to official estimates, wreaking damage estimated at $5.5bn and leaving thousands homeless.

The wildfire is the deadliest in the United States since 1918, when 453 people died in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the nonprofit research group National Fire Protection Association.

Questions are being asked about how prepared authorities were for the catastrophe, despite the islands’ exposure to natural hazards like tsunamis, earthquakes and violent storms.

In its emergency management plan last year, the state of Hawaii described the risk wildfires posed to people as being “low”.

Yet the layers of warning that are intended to buffer a citizenry if disaster strikes appear not to have operated.

Maui suffered numerous power outages during the crisis, preventing many residents from receiving emergency alerts on their mobile phones.

No emergency sirens sounded and many Lahaina residents spoke of learning about the blaze from neighbours running down the street or seeing it for themselves.

“The mountain behind us caught on fire and nobody told us jack,” resident Vilma Reed, 63, told AFP news agency.

“You know when we found that there was a fire? When it was across the street from us.”

Reed, whose house was destroyed by the blaze, said she was dependent on handouts and the kindness of strangers and was sleeping in a car with her daughter, grandson and two cats.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that firefighters sent to tackle the flames found some hydrants had run dry.

“There was just no water in the hydrants,” the paper quoted firefighter Keahi Ho as saying.

Noelani Ahia, a Maui community leader in western Lahaina, told Al Jazeera that residents are coming together to take care of each other “as we have always done in Hawaii”.

“We have been removed constantly – by the tourist industry, plantations, over development – and now we have this disaster and all this open land,” Ahia said, referring to the parts of the historic town that have been burned down to the ground.

Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, reporting from Kaanapali, Maui, said areas in western Lahaina remain closed off as the search efforts continue.

Rattansi said water, electricity and communications remain cut off in the area but life goes on with help from the community.

“Relief is being coordinated in central area for those who can’t leave or don’t want to leave and by standing their ground the community is marking its ground,” he said.

Grieving families lose hope

For some survivors, the difficult days after the tragedy were being worsened by what they see as official intransigence, with roadblocks preventing them from getting back to their homes.

Maui police said the public would not be allowed into Lahaina while safety assessments and searches were ongoing – even some of those who could prove they lived there.

Many residents are reluctant to leave the affected neighbourhoods despite requests from government officials.

“As I understand it, if they were to leave they wouldn’t be let back in,” said Pua’ena Ahn, a Kaanapali resident, warning that rebuilding the town “may not be as benign a process as officials say it would be”.

Teams marked the ruins of homes with a bright orange “X” to indicate an initial search, and “HR” when they found human remains.

Lylas Kanemoto is awaiting word about the fate of her cousin, Glen Yoshino.

“I’m afraid he is gone because we have not heard from him, and he would’ve found a way to contact family. We are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst,” Kanemoto said on Sunday. Family members will submit DNA samples to help identify any remains.

The family was grieving the death of four other relatives. The remains of Faaso and Malui Fonua Tone, their daughter, Salote Takafua, and her son, Tony Takafua, were found inside a charred car.

“At least we have closure for them, but the loss and heartbreak is unbearable for many,” Kanemoto said.

Tourists asked to stay out

Officials have urged tourists to avoid travelling to Maui as many hotels prepared to house evacuees and first responders.

About 46,000 residents and visitors have flown out of Kahului airport in West Maui since the devastation in Lahaina became clear on Wednesday, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“In the weeks ahead, the collective resources and attention of the federal, state and county government, the West Maui community, and the travel industry must be focused on the recovery of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses,” the agency said in a statement late on Saturday. Tourists are encouraged to visit Hawaii’s other islands.

The state said it wants to work with Airbnb to make sure that rental homes can be made available for locals.

Governor Josh Green said 500 hotel rooms will be made available for locals who have been displaced. An additional 500 hotel rooms will be set aside for workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

However, some hotels will carry on with normal business to help preserve jobs and sustain the local economy, Green said.

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