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Maui wildfires ‘the worst natural disaster Hawaii ever faced’ with more bodies likely to be found

Death toll stands at 93 and is expected to rise further in coming days, say officials

Namita Singh
Monday 14 August 2023 06:25 BST
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With the death toll from the Maui wildfires reaching 93 early on Sunday, governor Josh Green has labeled it the “worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced”.

The scale of the damage came into sharper focus on Saturday, four days after a fast-moving blaze leveled the historic resort town of Lahaina, obliterating buildings and melting cars.

Expressing shock over the scale of devastation, Mr Green said: “We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them healthcare, and then turn to rebuilding.”

The authorities suspect that the total number of fatalities, in what is already the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century, is likely to rise further in the coming days.

Crews with cadaver-sniffing dogs have covered just three per cent of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.

"We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least five square miles and it is full of our loved ones," noting that the death toll is likely to grow and "none of us really know the size of it yet."

He spoke as federal emergency workers picked through the ashen moonscape left by the fire that razed the centuries-old town of Lahaina. Teams marked the ruins of homes with a bright orange X to record an initial search, and HR when they found human remains.

A burnt out car lies in the driveway of charred apartment complex in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on 12 August 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Pelletier said identifying the dead is extremely challenging because "we pick up the remains and they fall apart ... When we find our family and our friends, the remains that we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal." Just two people have been identified so far, he said.

A Mercy Worldwide volunteer makes damage assessment of charred apartment complex in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on 12 August 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Dogs worked the rubble, and their occasional bark – used to alert their handlers to a possible corpse – echoed over the hot and colorless landscape. Sirens stationed around the island - intended to warn of impending natural disasters - never sounded, and widespread power and cellular outages hampered other forms of alerts.

Officials vowed to examine the state’s emergency notification systems after some residents questioned whether more could have been done to warn them before the fire overtook their homes. Some were forced to wade into the Pacific Ocean to escape.

Destroyed buildings and homes are seen from a boat in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on 12 August 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

The state’s attorney general, Anne Lopez, said she was launching a review of the decision-making before and during the fire, while Mr Green told CNN he had authorised a review of the emergency response.

So far, at least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Mr Green said, of which 86 per cent were residential. Across the island, he added, damage was estimated at close to $6bn. He said it would take "an incredible amount of time" to recover.

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