As officials in Hawaii continue to work painstakingly to identify the 101 people confirmed killed in wildfires that ravaged Maui, a mobile morgue unit arrived to assist even as teams intensified the search for more dead in neighborhoods reduced to ash. Meanwhile, local power utility Hawaii Electric Company has been facing criticism for not shutting off power in an area at high risk for fire.
The wildfires, some of which have not yet been fully contained, are already the deadliest in the US in more than a century. Fueled through parched invasive grasses by strong winds that whipped flames across miles in mere minutes, the blaze that swept into centuries-old Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000.
While the cause of the ignition is still under investigation, the local power utility has faced criticism for not shutting off power as strong winds buffeted a drought-stricken area under high risk for fire.
A video posted to Facebook by Shane Treu, a Maui resident, appeared to show a snapped power line dangling in a charred patch of grass, surrounded by orange flames.
“I heard ‘buzz, buzz,’” the 49-year-old resort worker recounted to the Associated Press. “It was almost like somebody lit a firework. It just ran straight up the hill to a bigger pile of grass and then, with that high wind, that fire was blazing.”
Treu’s video and others, captured in the early moments of what would become the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century, have emerged as key evidence pointing to fallen utility lines as the possible cause. Hawaiian Electric Co faces criticism for not shutting off the power amid high wind warnings and keeping it on even as dozens of poles began to topple.
A class-action lawsuit has already been filed seeking to hold the company responsible for the deaths of at least 101 people. The suit cites the utility’s own documents showing it was aware that preemptive power shutoffs such as those used in California were an effective strategy to prevent wildfires but never adopted them.
Hawaiian Electric declined to comment on the accusations in the lawsuit or whether it has ever shut down power before due to high winds. But Shelee Kimura, the president and CEO, noted at a news conference Monday that many factors go into that decision, including the possible effect on people who rely on specialized medical equipment and firefighters who need power to pump water.
“Even in places where this has been used, it is controversial, and it’s not universally accepted,” she said.
The US Department of Health and Human Services deployed a team of coroners, pathologists and technicians along with exam tables, X-ray units and other equipment to identify victims and process remains, said Jonathan Greene, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary for response.
“It’s going to be a very, very difficult mission,” Greene said. “And patience will be incredibly important because of the number of victims.”
Roughly 32% of the area has been scoured by crews using cadaver dogs, according to authorities, who said they expect up to 90% of the search to be completed by the weekend. John Pelletier, the Maui police chief, renewed an appeal for families with missing relatives to provide DNA samples. So far 41 samples have been submitted, the county statement said, and 13 DNA profiles have been obtained from remains.
Governor Josh Green confirmed the 101 people killed in an interview with CNN on Tuesday evening and said so far only four of the dead have been identified. He asked for patience and space to do the search properly as authorities became overwhelmed with requests to visit the burn area. He told CNN in an interview that the death toll could double as search and rescue work progresses.
“For those people who have walked into Lahaina because they really wanted to see, know that they’re very likely walking on iwi,” he said at a news conference on Maui, using the Hawaiian word for “bones”.
Authorities have warned that toxic byproducts may remain even in areas where the fire has retreated, including in drinking water, after the flames spewed poisonous fumes. That has left many unable to return home.
Authorities paused a system that had allowed Lahaina residents and others to visit devastated areas with police permits. Kevin Eliason said when he was turned away, the line of cars with people waiting to get a placard had grown to at least 3 miles (5km) long.
“It’s a joke,” Eliason said. “It’s just crazy. They didn’t expect, probably, tens of thousands of people to show up there.”
A week after a blaze tore through historic Lahaina, many who survived have started moving into hundreds of hotel rooms set aside for displaced locals while donations of food, ice, water and other essentials have poured in. Among the displaced are an estimated 3,000 animals, many of them badly injured, the Maui Humane Society told NBC news.
A long road to recovery for the vibrant and historic town of Lahaina still lays ahead and thousands of people will not be able to return home.
The Red Cross said 575 evacuees were spread across five shelters on Monday, including the War Memorial Gymnasium in Wailuku. Green said that thousands of people will need housing for at least nine months.
More than 3,000 people have registered for federal assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), and that number was expected to grow.
“We’re not taking anything off the table, and we’re going to be very creative in how we use our authorities to help build communities and help people find a place to stay for the longer term,” the agency administrator, Deanne Criswell, said.
Fema has started to provide $700 to displaced residents to cover the cost of food, water, first aid and medical supplies. The money is in addition to whatever amount residents qualify for to cover the loss of homes and personal property.
The Biden administration is seeking $12bn more for the government’s disaster relief fund as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress.
Green said “leaders all across the board” have helped by donating over 1m lbs (454,000kg) of food as well as ice, water, diapers and baby formula.
But residents, still reeling from the fire, have voiced growing concerns about the slow-moving systems that they said failed to adequately support them in the aftermath of the disaster. Volunteers, meanwhile, have flooded in to help with relief efforts and distribution centers are grappling with the over-abundance of donations spilling in.
“When people are hurting, the community steps up and takes care of each other,” the lieutenant governor, Sylvia Luke, said at a news conference on Monday.