LAHAINA, Hawaii - A mobile morgue unit arrived Tuesday to help Hawaii officials working painstakingly to identify the 99 people confirmed killed in wildfires that ravaged Maui, and officials expected to release the first list of names even as teams intensified the search for more dead in neighborhoods reduced to ash.
The U.S. 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."
A week after a blaze tore through historic Lahaina, many survivors started moving into hundreds of hotel rooms set aside for displaced locals, while donations of food, ice, water and other essentials poured in.
Charred remains of a burned neighbourhood is seen in the aftermath of a wildfire, in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on August 14, 2023. (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)
Crews using cadaver dogs have scoured about 32% of the area, the County of Maui said in a statement Tuesday. Gov. Josh Green asked for patience as authorities became overwhelmed with requests to visit the burn area.
Just three bodies have been identified, and officials expected to start releasing names Tuesday, according to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, who 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.
The governor warned that scores more bodies could be found. The wildfires, some of which have not yet been fully contained, are already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century. Their cause was under investigation.
When asked by Hawaii News Now if children are among the missing, Green said Tuesday: "Tragically, yes. ... When the bodies are smaller, we know it's a child."
Homes and businesses destroyed by wildfire are seen on August 14, 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
He described some of the sites being searched as "too much to share or see from just a human perspective."
Another complicating factor, Green said, is that storms with rain and high winds were forecast for the weekend. Officials are mulling whether to "preemptively power down or not for a short period of time, because right now all of the infrastructure is weaker."
A week after the fires started, some residents remained with intermittent power, unreliable cellphone service and uncertainty over where to get assistance. Some people walked periodically to a seawall, where phone connections were strongest, to make calls. Flying low off the coast, a single-prop airplane used a loudspeaker to blare information about where to get water and supplies.
Victoria Martocci, who lost her scuba business and a boat, planned to travel to her home in Kahana on Wednesday to store documents and keepsakes given to her by a friend whose house burned. "These are things she grabbed, the only things she could grab, and I want to keep them safe for her," Martocci said.
The local power utility has already faced criticism for not shutting off power as strong winds buffeted a parched area under high risk for fire. It’s not clear whether the utility’s equipment played any role in igniting the flames.
Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. President and CEO Shelee Kimura said many factors go into a decision to cut power, including the impact on people who rely on specialized medical equipment and concerns that a shutoff in the fire area would have knocked out water pumps.
Green has said the flames raced as fast as a mile (1.6 kilometers) every minute in one area, fueled by dry grass and propelled by strong winds from a passing hurricane.
The blaze that swept into centuries-old Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000. That fire has been 85% contained, according to the county. Another blaze known as the Upcountry fire was 60% contained.
The Lahaina fire caused about $3.2 billion in insured property losses, according to calculations by Karen Clark & Company, a prominent disaster and risk modeling company. That doesn’t count damage to uninsured property. The firm said more than 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed by flames, with about 3,000 damaged by fire or smoke or both.
Even where the flames have retreated, authorities have warned that toxic byproducts may remain, including in drinking water, after the flames spewed poisonous fumes. That has left many unable to return home.
The Red Cross said 575 evacuees were spread across five shelters as of Monday. Green said thousands of people will need housing for at least 36 weeks. He said Tuesday that some 450 hotel rooms and 1,000 Airbnb rentals were being made available.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he and first lady Jill Biden would visit Hawaii "as soon as we can" but he doesn’t want his presence to interrupt recovery and cleanup efforts. During a stop in Milwaukee to highlight his economic agenda, Biden pledged that "every asset they need will be there for them."
More than 3,000 people have registered for federal assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and that number was expected to grow.
FEMA was providing $700 to displaced residents to cover the cost of food, water, first aid and medical supplies, in addition to qualifying coverage for the loss of homes and personal property.
The Biden administration was seeking $12 billion 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 1 million pounds (450,000 kilograms) of food as well as ice, water, diapers and baby formula. U.S. Marines, the Hawaii National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard have all joined the aid and recovery efforts.
Lahaina resident Kekoa Lansford helped rescue people as the flames swept through town. Now he is collecting stories from survivors, hoping to create a timeline of what happened. He has 170 emails so far.
The scene was haunting. "Horrible, horrible," Lansford said Tuesday. "You ever seen hell in the movies? That is what it looked like. Fire everywhere. Dead people."
Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Weber from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Haven Daley in Kalapua, Hawaii; Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri; and Darlene Superville and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed.
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