‘We are mourning’: Agencies pledge more disaster aid as Maui death toll rises to 96
LAHAINA (HawaiiNewsNow) - The death toll from the ferocious wildfire that destroyed Lahaina town stands at 96, and officials continue to warn that the number of fatalities will likely rise.
On the ground, recovery teams with cadaver dogs are going from house to house and business to business in search of remains. Bodies have also been found in cars and on the road, more harrowing evidence of how the inferno caught many trying to flee the flames.
In a White House briefing on Monday morning, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that President Biden is “committed to ensuring Hawaii has everything they need.”
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who is on Maui, also spoke at the news conference to encourage evacuees to seek FEMA disaster assistance. Assistance checks of $700 are available for evacuees to help cover the costs of food, water and medical supplies. There are also additional aid programs for property loss. Details can be found at disasterassistance.gov.
“As residents mourn the loss of their friends, their loved ones, their neighbors, the loss of their homes and their way of life, we want to let them know that we are mourning with them,” Criswell said. “Nothing can prepare them for the emotional toll ... this severe event has taken on them.”
In a video address Sunday, Gov. Josh Green said there is “very little left” of Lahaina.
“We know the teams are going in an ongoing fashion and discovering more tragedies,” he said.
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The wildfire is now the deadliest in the US in more than a century.
In all, the flames destroyed approximately 2,700 structures, most of them homes.
Not counting the incomprehensible human cost, FEMA has estimated damage from the fire at $5.6 billion. That number, too, is expected to rise.
With thousands in shelters, living with family and friends, or sleeping in their cars, the Green Administration is solidifying a plan to move hundreds of evacuees to hotel rooms. The state has also announced a new effort to connect property owners with those in need of housing.
Officials have hesitated to offer an estimate on the total number of fatalities in the blaze, noting that 1,000 people who remain unaccounted for may simply have not have checked in with agencies.
But hope that the death toll won’t continue to soar in the coming days is also fading fast.
What is clear, Green said, is “it will certainly be the worst natural disaster Hawaii has ever faced.”
On Saturday, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters cadaver dogs had searched just 3% of the hardest-hit areas, and asked those with missing loved ones to provide DNA samples at a county resource center. For information on how to report loved ones missing, click here.
Pelletier also asked for patience from those seeking to get into downtown Lahaina, reminding people that there are still remains that need to be properly recovered and identified.
“When we find our family and friends, the remains we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal. We have to do rapid DNA to identify them. Every one of these ... are John and Jane Does.”
Meanwhile at emergency shelters, family members are hanging photos of missing loved ones and a community group has created an online document for people to share the status of their search.
As the grim work of sifting through a burned-out community continues, there are growing questions about whether enough was done to warn residents. The state has pledged to conduct a review of the actions taken before, during and after the wildfire. One key concern for some: Authorities have confirmed sirens were not sounded in Lahaina even with cells and power out.
Authorities have noted the confluence of factors that created the deadly wildfire are unique. Maui was grappling with drought and warmer than normal temperatures, gusting winds were whipping up to 80 mph, and firefighters were battling several large wildfires across the island.
After a tour of Lahaina on Saturday, U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said the wildfire that tore through the town moved “incredibly fast and outpaced anything that firefighters could have done.” News reports have also identified major problems with water access.
The county has put the total number of residents at evacuation shelters at 1,418. That’s in addition to hundreds more staying with friends, in hotels or in their cars.
Federal officials estimate about 4,500 people have been displaced.
Access to historic Lahaina town remains blocked off, though Maui County has reopened entry to nearby areas for area residents and visitors who need to collect belongings.
MPD said access placards will be required in order to travel into West Maui starting Tuesday at 5 p.m. They will begin distributing the placards on Monday.
A town hall will be held Saturday, Aug. 19 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Maui Tech Park to help victims navigate the different federal resources made available, Congresswoman Jill Tokuda said in an interview on Hawaii News Now Sunrise.
The public event will feature multiple services available for victims, including passports, USPS, SBA and FEMA assistance.
Tokuda said the top priority is “to provide support on multiple levels” while making sure economic health of Maui County and the rest of the state are maintained.
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