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Saturday, September 9, 2023
Maui trudges toward recovery, one month since wildfire tragedy
By Selected News Articles @ 5:38 PM :: 1717 Views :: Maui County

Maui trudges toward recovery, one month since wildfire tragedy

The number of people still missing from Lahaina after wildfires wiped out a portion of West Maui has dropped from hundreds to 66, Hawaii's governor announced Friday.

by Candace Cheung, Court House News, September 8, 2023

HAWAII (CN) — One month since wind-whipped wildfires tore through Maui and devastated one of the Hawaiian Islands’ oldest towns, the smoke has only just begun to clear for the thousands of residents and businesses affected by the blaze.

“It’s going to be a long process for us to rebuild and heal, and we are grateful for the love and support coming to Maui from around the country and around the world,” Hawaii Governor Josh Green said in a live address Friday.

The Aug. 8 Maui wildfires have been called the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii history and is the most lethal wildfire in the U.S. in over a century. The fires claimed the lives of at least 115 people and destroyed most of historic Lahaina town, once a former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and contemporary center of arts and culture on Maui.

According to Green, the FBI has reported that the number of unaccounted for individuals has dropped to 66, down a significant amount from initial reports of over 3,000, later dropped to 385 last week.

Thousands of West Maui residents remain displaced by one of the three wildfires ignited on Aug. 8 amid dry weather conditions, exacerbated by winds up to 70 miles per hour coming from Category 4 Hurricane Dora, passing just south of the islands.

In a Wednesday update, Maui County reported that the Lahaina fire was 100% contained, though not entirely extinguished. Two fires in rural Upcountry Maui remain at around 90% to 90% contained.

Officials currently estimate that 2,200 structures were damaged in the fires, a majority of which were residential properties. Hundreds of businesses and restaurants on Lahaina town’s Front Street were also destroyed. Damages have been estimated at around $6 billion.

Green said in his address that survivors have now be relocated to a number of shelters, including hotels and Airbnbs, and that the state will continue to work with federal support to establish a long-term plan for displaced West Maui residents, who have been barred from the town since the day of the fire.

The governor advised people against trying to enter Lahaina while recovery was ongoing, cautioning that there was still significant debris and toxic ash in the area. He said that supervised visits for residents would be arranged in the coming weeks.

The governor also emphasized that while West Maui would remain closed to the public until Oct. 8, the rest of Maui and the other islands were open and encouraged visitors to come and support the local economy.

“Many have asked when it will be the right time to reopen West Maui to visitors,” Green said in his address. “There is no easy answer to this question, but I can say that if we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to afford to live on Maui.”

He added, “The people of Maui must have as much time as they need to heal and recover, and we will begin to rebuild only when they are ready, according to the timeline they choose. Lahaina belongs to its people — and we are committed to rebuilding and restoring it the way they want it.”

Though the cause of the wildfires has yet to be determined, accusations and criticisms have been flung between residents, the state, the county, and the island’s electric utility over the immediate handling and response to the fires.  

The emergency response to the firestorm has been heavily criticized, and many have claimed that Maui County officials’ delayed response contributed to the deadliness of the fire. Green ordered an investigation into the fires and the emergency response on Aug. 11.

Lahaina survivors reported that the state’s emergency sirens never sounded and that they received minimal warnings on the fires. Maui County had instead released alerts on phones and television, services that were being actively impacted by the fires at the time.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen — a former judge of Maui Circuit Court in his first term as mayor — has faced backlash for his abrupt responses to questions about the county’s emergency procedures and refusing to clarify his and other officials’ timelines during the fires. The head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency resigned in August after publicly saying he had no regrets for not sounding the sirens. State and county officials have sidestepped questions about why the sirens were not sounded and why Bissen’s administration did not immediately call for state assistance.

Hawaiian Electric, the island’s power utility, has weathered a heavy dose of the blame, with at least 10 lawsuits filed since Aug. 8 — including one from the County of Maui itself — claiming that the utility kept their power lines activated during the heavy winds, sparking the fire and contributing to the conflagration.  

Green acknowledged the onslaught of litigation that predicted to arise from the devastation.

“In the spirit of aloha, local attorneys who seek to represent Maui survivors will be humbly asked to support and represent survivors on a pro bono basis or at a greatly reduced rate, so survivors can receive more of the settlements they deserve, and I am calling on our local legal and business leaders to support this effort,” he said.

The governor also condemned those that “descended on Maui seeking an opportunity to profit,” referring to rumors of predatory developers looking to purchase Lahaina land from the still-vulnerable community.

U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono also addressed conspiracies that have cropped up in the wake of the fires in a Senate floor address Thursday.

“At a time of grief and loss, residents have been subjected to disinformation on social media, likely coordinated by foreign government entities, to discourage residents from reaching out to FEMA for disaster assistance and disinformation that sowed distrust in the federal government,” she said. “It is an all-hands-on-deck effort to combat this kind of disinformation and make sure survivors can access federal support. As we work to ensure the survivors of this disaster have the support they need, we’re also working to understand the full cost of the devastation.”



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