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Search for Maui wildfire victims continues as death toll rises to 114

Hawaii governor vows to review wildfire response
Hawaii governor vows to review Maui wildfire response as anger grows among Lahaina residents 02:03

Maui officials confirmed Friday that the wildfire death toll has risen to at least 114, while the search for hundreds of missing people continued in the historic coastal port city of Lahaina, which was almost completely destroyed by the blaze.  

Only six of the victims have so far been publicly identified.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green and his wife, Jaime Green, held an emotional livestream address Friday night from Honolulu.

"For generations, Lahaina's beauty culture and rich history drew artists, musicians and visitors from around the world," Jaime Green said. "Tragically, it took less than a single day for us to lose Lahaina in the deadliest fire our country has seen in more than a century."

The Lahaina fire was one of four that broke out on the island on Aug. 8. Green said Friday that at least 2,200 structures have been destroyed and another 500 damaged in the blaze at an estimated cost of about $6 billion. Forty search dogs and 470 search and rescue workers have been deployed.

"Far more devastating than any material loss, is the loss of precious lives," the governor said. "Of mothers, fathers, grandparents, sons and daughters."

Maui wildfires
Search and recovery team members check charred buildings and cars in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii. Aug. 18, 2023.  YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier in the day, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen told reporters that about 60% of the Lahaina burn area had been canvassed for human remains by several hundred federal search and rescue personnel using dozens of cadaver dogs.  

A FEMA spokesperson Wednesday estimated that the number of people unaccounted for was between 1,100 and 1,300.

Six forensic anthropologists with the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency are assisting in gathering and identifying human remains, the Pentagon said in a statement Friday. The group is experienced in verifying DNA from long-lost service members, many of whom died as long ago as World War II.

Marcus Coleman, a senior official from FEMA, said Friday that about 1,000 federal responders are now on the ground in Maui.

About 6,000 residents have registered for federal assistance, Coleman said, adding that FEMA has paid out about $5.6 million so far to 2,000 households.

Authorities hope to empty crowded, uncomfortable group shelters by early next week, said Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations with the American Red Cross. Hotels also are available for eligible evacuees who have spent the last eight days sleeping in cars or camping in parking lots, he said.

Contracts with the hotels will last for at least seven months but could easily be extended, he said. Service providers at the properties will offer meals, counseling, financial assistance and other disaster aid.

The governor has said at least 1,000 hotel rooms have been set aside for displaced residents and first responders. In addition, Airbnb said its nonprofit wing will provide properties for 1,000 people.

Bissen said he will name a temporary replacement on Monday for Herman Andaya, the Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator who abruptly resigned Thursday after defending a decision not to sound outdoor warning sirens during the Lahaina fire.

Andaya had said this week that he had no regrets about not deploying the system because he feared it could have caused people to go "mauka," a Hawaiian term that can mean toward the mountains or inland.

"If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire," Andaya explained. He stepped down Thursday, a day later.

Andaya's resignation letter was brief and had no mention of the health reasons that county officials cited for his resignation.

The decision to not use the sirens, coupled with water shortages that hampered firefighters and an escape route clogged with vehicles that were overrun by flames, has brought intense criticism from many residents following the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century.

Hawaii has what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world, created after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 on the Big Island. Its website says they may be used to alert for fires.

On Wednesday, Andaya vigorously defended his qualifications for the job, which he had held since 2017. He said he was not appointed but had been vetted, took a civil service exam and was interviewed by seasoned emergency managers.

Andaya said he had previously been deputy director of the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Concerns and chief of staff for former Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa for 11 years. During that time, he said, he often reported to "emergency operations centers" and participated in numerous trainings.

"So to say that I'm not qualified I think is incorrect," he said.

Corrine Hussey Nobriga said it was hard to lay blame for a tragedy that took everyone by surprise, even if some of her neighbors raised questions about the absence of sirens and inadequate evacuation routes.

The fire moved quickly through her neighborhood, though her home was spared.

"One minute we saw the fire over there," she said, pointing toward faraway hills, "and the next minute it's consuming all these houses."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. The Justice Department confirmed Friday it has deployed federal emergency response teams to assist in that investigation. They include investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said Thursday that an outside organization will conduct "an impartial, independent" review of the government's response.

Native Hawaiians and others from Lahaina said earlier Friday they worry Green is moving too quickly to rebuild what was lost while the grief is still raw.

"The fire occurred only 10 days ago, and many people are still in shock and mourning," Tiare Lawrence, who grew up in Lahaina, said at an emotional news conference organized by community activists. They called Green to give residents time to grieve, provide community leaders with recovery decision-making roles and comply with open-records laws amid distrust in the government response to the disaster.

Since the flames consumed much of Lahaina, locals have feared a rebuilt town could become even more oriented toward wealthy visitors.

Earlier this week, he said he would announce details of a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina to prevent people from falling victim to land grabs. Green has said Lahaina's future will be determined by its people, but didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the group's concerns.

"The governor should not rush to rebuild the community without first giving people time to heal, especially without including the community itself in the planning," Lawrence said. "Fast-track development cannot come at the cost of community control."

More than a dozen of Lawrence's uncles and cousins fled the fast-moving fire last week and went east to her Pukalani home.

The coalition of activists, under the umbrella of a group calling itself "Na Ohana o Lele: Lahaina," were especially concerned about the impact of development on the environment and noted how mismanagement of resources — particularly land and water — contributed to the quick spread of the fire.

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are scheduled to visit the island Monday. 

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