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Saturday, August 12, 2023
Maui wildfire search and rescue continues as community decries government response
By Court House News @ 2:21 PM :: 1739 Views :: Maui County

Hawaii Governor Josh Green and other officials surveyed the wreckage of Lahaina town Thursday morning. (Office of the Governor, State of Hawaii via Courthouse News)

Maui wildfire search and rescue continues as community decries government response

Hawaii officials are facing criticism, and a review, of their handling of wildfires on Maui that have become the deadliest natural disaster in the Hawaii history.

by Candace Cheung, Court House News, August 11, 2023

HAWAII (CN) — As recovery efforts chug along on Maui following wind-whipped wildfires that tore through the island and its cherished Lahaina town, state officials are facing heavy criticism for a lacking alert system that may have led to a historic death toll.

Maui County confirmed at least 67 fatalities Friday afternoon, making the Lahaina wildfires the deadliest natural disaster in the state’s history, over a 1960 tsunami that claimed 61 lives in Hilo. Recovery efforts are ongoing, leading officials to caution that the death toll will likely continue to rise.

The immediate government response to the tragedy has been characterized as chaotic and Maui residents have become frustrated about what they see as a lack of communication between government officials and the people.

Although the state employs emergency sirens for natural disasters like this, residents have complained that they had no warning from the state or county until the fires were at their doorsteps. Officials blamed the loss of phone and internet services for not being able to reach residents with warnings that they only put out through social media and phone and television alerts. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen dismissed questions in the Thursday conference about confusion between evacuation and shelter-in-place orders issued on Tuesday, saying that the county did all they could to help, but couldn't do anything about people who didn't comply with their warnings.

The state Attorney General announced Friday afternoon that the department would be opening an investigation into the "critical decision-making" involved in the wildfire emergency response.

“The Department of the Attorney General shares the grief felt by all in Hawaii, and our hearts go out to everyone affected by this tragedy,” says Attorney General Anne E. Lopez said in a statement. “My department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review. As we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”

“The fire that day moved so quickly, that from when it started in the brush and moved into the neighborhood, communications were physically nearly impossible,” Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura had said in a Thursday press conference, referencing winds from Category 4 Hurricane Dora that reached 60 to 70 miles per hour on Tuesday that fanned the fires into an inferno. “What we experienced was such a fast-moving fire through the neighborhood that the initial neighborhood that caught fire they were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice.”

Maui County has now set up a radio-based announcement system that will provide updates throughout the day, alongside social media updates.

West Maui remained largely inaccessible through the week as officials warned that search and rescue was still underway and that the area was likely still hazardous from lingering fires, unsafe air and debris.

This meant, however, some West Maui residents in nearby Ka’anapali and Napili-Honokowai north of Lahaina had been trapped with dwindling supplies as most roads in and out of the region were blocked, except for emergency and other authorized recovery vehicles.

Limited access to parts of the fire-ravaged town has been allowed starting at noon on Friday for residents and visitors to return to check on their properties and belongings, as well as to let people out of the area. This soon turned an "altercation" between Maui police and people attempting to go reach prohibited areas beyond the bypass site, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. The highway checkpoint was briefly closed again after the clash, but reopened to outgoing traffic later.

Firefighters are still battling the wildfires, four days after a combination of unusually dry conditions combined with heavy winds from a passing hurricane whipped brushfires into an inferno that decimated Lahaina. Maui County announced in a Friday statement that the Lahaina fire, which destroyed most of the town's historic Front Street, was around 85% contained. Fires in Kihei and Kula have also yet to be entirely contained.

The County of Maui Department of Water Supply also issued an unsafe water advisory on Friday. Electricity services have not yet been restored and phone services were intermittent, with officials recommending that people text rather than call, to avoid overloading the still delicate system.

Six emergency shelters remain open for evacuees, with the largest holding more than 1,000 people. For those who are able to get off the island, displaced visitors and residents are being funneled out of Maui and to Oahu, where the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu is being turned into shelter.

Gov Green appealed on Thursday to community members on Maui and other islands to consider opening their homes, and hotels, to the thousands who have been displaced by the fires. The governor has issued a series of emergency proclamations triggering access to state funds for recovery.

Several donation drives are being held around the islands, including one at the State Capitol, and many local organizations are accepting donations online as well.

 

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