Maui wildfires deadliest in century as death toll hits 96, rescue efforts continue
PHOTO CAPTION: A view of flames as wildfires engulfed the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S. August 9, 2023. Erin Hawk/Handout via REUTERS
By Jorge Garcia and Mike Blake
KAHULUI, Hawaii (Reuters) -The death toll from the Maui wildfires reached 96 on Sunday as relatives of the missing frantically searched for signs their loved ones may still be alive, while survivors grappled with the scale of the disaster and sought solace at church services.
Days after the inferno destroyed much of the historic resort town of Lahaina on Tuesday and Wednesday, crews of firefighters were still battling flare-ups, and cadaver dogs were sifting through the town's charred ruins in search of victims.
The death toll made the blaze Hawaii's worst natural disaster, surpassing a tsunami that killed 61 people in 1960, a year after Hawaii became a U.S. state.
It was also the largest number of deaths from a U.S. wildfire since 1918, when 453 people died in the Cloquet fire in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.
Many of the survivors took to Sunday church services, including Akanesi Vaa, 38, who said her family got stuck in traffic while trying to escape the flames.
Vaa, her husband and her children aged 15, 13 and 9 fled on foot and jumped a fence to safety. Along the way, an elderly woman pleading for help handed her a baby to care for. The woman and her husband also made it over the fence.
"I think a lot of us needed to hear today's message," Vaa said after attending church at King's Cathedral in Kahului.
"All these ashes are going to turn into beauty. I know Lahaina will come back ten times stronger."
Scott Landis, pastor at Keawal'i Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Makena, said an unusually large crowd of 100 showed, nearly double what he would have expected on a typical Sunday in August.
"They were really listening. You could tell people were here, looking for a word of hope," Landis said.
Among them were people with family and friends unaccounted for, and "fearing the worst" he added.
People sifted through a crowd-sourced online database listing thousands of names of individuals who had been found, as well as of those who remained unaccounted for.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green warned at a press conference on Saturday the death toll would continue to climb as more victims were discovered. Dogs trained to detect bodies have covered only 3% of the search area, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said.
Family and friends mobilized on social media, asking for help in locating missing loved ones.
"Still searching for my in-laws," Heather Baylosis wrote in a Saturday Instagram post. "People are being found alive and severely disoriented due to what they have gone through. We are holding out hope!"
Megan Sweeting wrote on her Facebook page, "MISSING: My Dad, Michael Misaka, has been missing since the Lahaina Fires started. If there is any information out there regarding my dad please let me know. I just need to know he is safe."
Hundreds remained missing, though a precise count was unclear.
Hawaii Governor Green vowed to investigate the response to the blaze and the emergency notification systems after some residents questioned whether more could have been done to warn them.
Some witnesses said they had little warning, describing their terror as the blaze destroyed the town around them in what seemed like minutes. Others dove into the Pacific Ocean to escape.
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.
"We'll know soon whether or not they did enough to get those sirens going," Green told MSNBC.
The cost to rebuild Lahaina was estimated at $5.5 billion, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with more than 2,200 structures damaged or destroyed and more than 2,100 acres (850 hectares) burned.
(Reporting by Jorge Garcia and Sandra Stojanovic in Kahului, Hawaii, and Mike Blake in Makena, Hawaii; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Stephen Culp in New York and Anirudh Saligrama in Bengaluru; Writing by Maria Caspani and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chris Reese, Lincoln Feast and Bernadette Baum)