UPDATE: Governor says Maui death toll will rise ‘significantly’

Wildfire damage in Lahaina. (AP photo)

UPDATE: 2:30 p.m.

Maui County officials raised the confirmed fatality count from Tuesday’s out-of-control wildfires to 53, an increase of 17 from Wednesday, and Gov. Josh Green expects that number to keep climbing.


The county provided no other details but Green told CNN earlier that the death toll will go up “very significantly” from the Wednesday estimate of 36 as search-and-rescue crews reach areas that were previously inaccessible.

Green also said the estimate of buildings destroyed on Maui is “upwards of 1,700,” sharply higher than the initial estimate Wednesday of 271. He said that about 11,000 people in West Maui were still without power.

He described what he was seeing in Lahaina as “total devastation,” estimating that about 80% of the town was destroyed, with hundreds of families displaced. He added that the damage to property will be in the “billions of dollars,” he said.

Green thanked President Joe Biden for swiftly approving the state’s request for a disaster declaration today, and that he expects federal aid to start flowing into the state in days. And he praised the on-the-ground assistance already being provided by FEMA on Maui.

UPDATE: 10:38 a.m.

President Joe Biden today approved a presidential disaster declaration for Hawaii that will bring “significant relief” to communities on Maui and the Big Island affected by this week’s wildfires.

“Recovering from these devastating fires will take significant time and resources, and we need all the federal support we can get,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said in a statement announcing the declaration. “I thank the Biden administration for moving fast to approve this disaster declaration. It will unlock federal resources and help our state and county governments respond to and recover from these fires and help the people of Maui and Hawaii island.”

Biden spoke by phone today with Gov. Josh Green, who returned to the islands overnight after coming back early from a personal trip.

The president “expressed his deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property,” the White House said in a statement this morning.

Biden confirmed he signed a “Major Disaster Declaration” for Hawaii that will deliver additional federal resources and support on top of the actions already underway by FEMA, the National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other federal agencies, the statement said.

Green’s office said the declaration makes federal funding available to affected individuals on Maui, including grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, as well as other programs to help individuals and business owners recover.

Federal funding also will be available to state and eligible county governments, and certain private, nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis, for debris removal and emergency protective measures in Maui County, the governor’s office said.

Assistance for emergency protective measures for Hawaii County also will be available.

“In the coming days — as more and more details emerge — I ask that we as a state provide all the emotional and financial support we can to the people of Lahaina and Maui,” the governor said in a statement.

Green, who will visit Maui today to survey the damage, ordered that the U.S and state flags be flown at half-staff at the State Capitol, all state offices and agencies, and Hawaii National Guard facilities, effective immediately, to mourn those killed in the Maui fires.


WAILUKU — The search of the wildfire wreckage on Maui today revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities as firefighters battled the stubborn blaze that has already claimed 36 lives, making it the deadliest in the U.S. in recent years.

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire started Tuesday and took the island by surprise, racing through parched growth and neighborhoods in the historic town of Lahaina, a tourist destination that dates to the 1700s and is the biggest community on the island’s west side.

Maui County said late Wednesday that at least 36 people had died, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.

The Hawaii toll could rise, though, as rescuers reach parts of the island that had been unreachable due to ongoing fires or obstructions.

Officials said earlier Wednesday that 271 structures had been damaged or destroyed and that dozens of people had been injured.

“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” said Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

He said search and rescue teams still won’t be able to access certain areas until the fire lines are secure and they’re sure that they’re going to be able to get to those areas safely.

“What we have here is a natural disaster,” Weintraub said. “There may have been questions that need to be examined about whether it was handled in the right way. But we still got people in danger. We still have people who don’t have homes. We still have people who can’t find their loved ones.”

The flames left some people with mere minutes to act and led some to flee into the ocean. A Lahaina man, Bosco Bae, posted video on Facebook from Tuesday night that showed fire burning nearly every building on a street as sirens blared and spark-filled winds roared by. Bae, who said he was one of the last people to leave the town, was evacuated to the island’s main airport and was waiting to be allowed to return home.

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described their harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their 6-year-old son got back to their apartment after a quick dash to the supermarket for water, and only had time to grab a change of clothes and run as the bushes around them caught fire.

“We barely made it out,” Kawaakoa, 34, said at an evacuation shelter on Wednesday, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.

As the family fled, a senior center across the road erupted in flames. They called 911, but didn’t know if the people got out. As they drove away, downed utility poles and others fleeing in cars slowed their progress. “It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Kawaakoa said.

As the fires rage, tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 flew out of Maui on Wednesday, with at least another 1,500 expected to leave today, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in the thousands who have been displaced.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime.”

“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said in a recorded statement. “In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”

The fires were fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south. It’s the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

Wildfires aren’t unusual in Hawaii, but the weather of the past few weeks created the fuel for a devastating blaze and, once ignited, the high winds created the disaster, said Thomas Smith an associate professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“The vegetation in the lowland areas of Maui is particularly parched this year, with below-average precipitation in the spring, and hardly any rainfall this summer.” Smith said.

The Big Island is also currently seeing blazes, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there. Roads were open, and there were no mandatory evacuations this morning.

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