The death toll from Maui’s wildfires stood at 99 Monday, a number likely to rise as search parties comb neighborhoods where the flames are spreading at speeds of up to a mile per minute.
The fires that destroyed most of the historic city of Lahaina are already the deadliest in the United States in more than a century. The cause has been investigated.
Gov. Josh Green said the search will take time and asked for space to properly conduct it.
“People who went to Lahaina because they really wanted to see it should know that they’re most likely walking the Iwi,” he said at a news conference in Maui, using the Hawaiian word for “bones.”
In an interview with CBS that aired early Monday, Green estimated that searchers will find the remains of 10 to 20 people a day until they finish their job. “And it will probably take 10 days. It’s really impossible to guess,” he said.
With cell service slowly being restored, the number of missing people has dropped from more than 2,000 to about 1,300, Green said.
Twenty cadaver dogs and dozens of seekers make their way through blocks that have been reduced to ash. As of Monday, they’d searched about 25% of the area, up from just 3% over the weekend, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.
Meanwhile, some state officials say there is a shortage of water for firefighters, blaming a recent ruling by an environmental judge. It’s part of a long-running battle between environmentalists and private companies over the decades-old practice of diverting water from streams in east Maui, which began in the past of Hawaii’s sugar plantations.
Green said there are people fighting over access to water to fight fires. “In Maui and other rural areas, we’re struggling to get enough water for homes, for our people and for any relief effort,” he said.
Green said the attorney general’s office is reviewing decisions related to the fires.
Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc., Maui’s electric utility, will cooperate with the state and conduct its own investigation, President and CEO Shelee Kimura said.
It’s not clear if the utility’s equipment played a role in igniting the flames. Hawaiian Electric has been criticized for failing to turn off power when high winds battered a parched area with a high fire risk.
Kimura said many factors play into the decision to turn off power, including the impact on people who rely on specialized medical equipment. She also pointed out that cutting off power in the fire area would have caused the water pumps to fail.
“Even where this has been applied, it is controversial and not widely accepted,” she said.
While the utility worked to fully restore power, evacuees were expected to begin moving into hotels on Monday evening. Green said 500 hotel rooms would be made available for displaced locals and another 500 rooms would be reserved for Federal Emergency Management Agency workers helping with the recovery.
In addition, FEMA has begun giving displaced residents $700 to help cover food, water, first aid and medical expenses, agency director Deanne Criswell said Monday. The money is in addition to the amount residents are entitled to to cover loss of homes and personal property.
“We’re not taking anything off the table and we’re going to be very creative in how we use our agencies to help build communities and help people find housing for longer periods of time,” Criswell said. According to FEMA, more than 3,000 people have signed up for government assistance, and that number is expected to grow.
On the subject of water supplies, US Fire Department Deputy Chief Tonya Hoover said she did not have details on the island’s current water supply. She said the head of her agency met with firefighters, including one who was seriously injured and hospitalized.
The Biden administration is requesting an additional $12 billion for the government’s disaster relief fund as part of its request to Congress for additional funding.
Authorities had required anyone traveling to the disaster areas to obtain a police-issued sign, but this was suspended on Monday due to overwhelming demand. Lahaina resident Kevin Eliason said when he was turned away, the line of cars with people waiting for a sign grew to at least 3 miles.
“That’s a joke,” Eliason said. “It’s just crazy. They probably didn’t expect tens of thousands of people to show up there.”
The fire that ravaged century-old Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the city of 13,000. According to the district, the fire was contained by 85%. Another blaze, known as the “Upcountry Fire,” has been 60% contained, officials said.
“There’s very little left there,” Green said of Lahaina in a video update on Sunday, adding that “an estimated $5.6 billion worth has disappeared.”
Even where the fire has died down, authorities have warned that toxic by-products could be left behind, including in drinking water after the flames put out toxic fumes. And many people just don’t have a home to return to.
According to the Red Cross, as of Monday, 575 evacuees were spread across five shelters, including the War Memorial Gymnasium in Wailuku. Among those in attendance was Oprah Winfrey, who told Hawaii News Now that she had been delivering toiletries, towels and water for the past few days.
Winfrey, a part-time Maui resident, warned that eventually the news crews will pull away from the destruction and the world will move on. But she said, “We’re all going to still be here, trying to figure out how best to rebuild.” … I’m going to stay here for the long haul and do what I can.”
As firefighters battled the blazes, numerous lawsuits were filed last week over access to water. On Wednesday morning, Judge Jeffrey Crabtree issued an order temporarily overriding the water limits he had imposed for 48 hours. He also authorized water distribution at the request of the Maui Fire Department, county, or state until further notice if the judge could not be reached.
But that wasn’t enough for the attorney general’s office, who later filed a petition with the state Supreme Court blaming Crabtree for the lack of water to fight the fire. The state asked the court not to let Crabtree change the amount of water to be diverted or to override its restrictions until the petition is resolved.
The judge “substituted his verdict in place of the agency’s verdict,” the petition said, citing the Board of Land and Natural Resources. “As a result, there wasn’t enough water to … fight the wildfires.”
Sierra Club executive Wayne Tanaka said Monday that the attorney general’s office exaggerated the impact of water diversion caps on firefighting.
“It’s a shameless exploitation of this terrible tragedy,” he said. “Maui’s central reservoirs are useless to West Maui, where most of the devastation is ongoing.”
He said he was concerned the state might want to help a private company monopolize water.
Representatives for former sugar plantation owner Alexander & Baldwin and the East Maui Irrigation Company did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
A spokesman for the Board of Land and Natural Resources said it is not commenting on pending litigation.
The attorney general’s office said in a statement Monday that Alexander & Baldwin uses water to wet soil for preventative firefighting, and that Crabtree’s previous orders only affected water supplies in the central Maui area and “do not directly affect the water situation in Lahaina.”
The main focus of the petition is “that an administrative review is more appropriate than having this type of activity monitored by the court,” the statement said.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the flames raced through parched undergrowth on Maui. According to Green, a fire spread at a rate of up to 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) every minute.
“Ultimately, with winds like this and 1,000-degree temperatures, whatever images you’re going to see will be easy to understand,” the governor said.