Hawaii wildfire survivors face power cuts, new storm as death toll climbs
A mobile morgue and additional coroners have arrived in Lahaina as death toll reaches 106
By Claire Rush, Jennifer Sinco Kelleher and Christopher Weber
LAHAINA, Hawaii — Survivors of deadly wildfires on Maui contended with intermittent power and unreliable cell service as they sought help rebuilding their lives. Experts, meanwhile, labored to find the dead and identify them.
With the death toll already at 106, a mobile morgue unit with additional coroners arrived in Hawaii on Tuesday to help with the grim task of sorting through remains. The governor warned that a new storm could complicate the search and recovery.
A week after a wildfire all but incinerated the historic town of Lahaina, communication on the island was still difficult. 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.
Thousands of people are staying in shelters, in hotel rooms and Airbnb units, or with friends. Around 2,000 homes and businesses still don’t have electricity, Maui County wrote Tuesday night, after the power company restored supply to over 10,000 customers. The fire also contaminated water supplies in many areas.
Victoria Martocci, who lost her scuba business and a boat, planned to travel to her storage unit Wednesday to stash 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 county also released the names of two victims: Lahaina residents Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79. They are the first of five who have been identified so far.
Crews with dogs are rushing to secure remains, Gov. Josh Green said, ahead of possible storms forecast for the weekend.
“I want the rain, ironically, but that’s why we’re racing right now to do all the recovery that we can, because winds or heavy rain in that disaster setting ... will make it even harder to get the final determination of who we lost,” he said.
Crews using cadaver dogs have scoured about 32% of the burn area, according to Maui County, and Green has warned that scores more bodies could be found. The wildfires are already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century.
The governor added that officials are considering cutting off power during the storms as a precautionary measure.
The local power utility has faced criticism for leaving power on as strong winds from a passing hurricane buffeted a parched area last week, and one video shows a cable dangling in a charred patch of grass, surrounded by flames, in the early moments of the wildfire. The cause of the wildfires, some still burning, is still under investigation.
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.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier 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.
Federal officials sent a mobile morgue unit with coroners, pathologists and technicians to Hawaii to help identify the dead, said Johnathan Greene, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The morgue unit included 22 tons of supplies and equipment such as mortuary examination tables and X-ray units, Greene said.
“It’s going to be a very, very difficult mission,” Greene said. “And patience will be incredibly important because of the number of victims.”
Gov. Green told Hawaii News Now that children are among the dead: “When the bodies are smaller, we know it’s a child.”
He described some of the sites being searched as “too much to share or see from just a human perspective.”
The blaze that swept into 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 75% contained as of Tuesday evening.
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, smoke or both.
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.”
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.
The scene was haunting. “Horrible, horrible,” Lansford said. “You ever seen hell in the movies? That is what it looked like. Fire everywhere. Dead people.”