Maui Wildfires Become Deadliest in a Century with 89 Reported Deaths

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The Maui wildfires, which occurred in Lahaina, have now become the deadliest wildfire in the US in over a century, with the death toll reaching 89. Unfortunately, this number is expected to rise as search teams, accompanied by cadaver dogs, continue to search through the debris.

The extent of the devastation has become more apparent four days after the fast-moving blaze swept through the historic resort town, leaving buildings destroyed and cars melted.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the estimated cost to rebuild Lahaina is $5.5 billion. Over 2,200 structures have been damaged or destroyed, and more than 2,100 acres (850 hectares) have been burned.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green announced during a press conference that the death toll is likely to increase as more victims are discovered. So far, search dogs have only covered three percent of the search area, as stated by Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier.

As some residents questioned the effectiveness of the emergency notification systems, officials have pledged to review and improve them. Many residents were caught off guard by the fire and had to escape by wading into the nearby Pacific Ocean. Sirens meant to warn of natural disasters failed to sound, and widespread power and cellular outages hindered other forms of communication.

Anne Lopez, the state’s attorney general, has initiated a review of the decision-making process before and during the fire. Governor Green has also authorized a review of the emergency response.

Officials have described the challenging circumstances that contributed to the disaster, such as communication failures, severe winds reaching speeds of up to 80 miles per hour (130 kph) from an offshore hurricane, and another wildfire located several miles away. These factors made it extremely difficult to coordinate real-time warnings and evacuation orders with the emergency management agency.

Green acknowledged that there is room for improvement in protecting people in the future. However, the combination of multiple fires and dangerous winds created unprecedented challenges.

With a death toll of 89, the Maui wildfires surpass the 1960 tsunami that claimed 61 lives, making it the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history since becoming a US state. This toll also exceeds the 85 casualties of the 2018 fire in Paradise, California, and is the highest reported from a wildfire since 1918, when the Cloquet fire in Minnesota and Wisconsin took 453 lives.

To support those who have lost their homes, officials have secured 1,000 hotel rooms and are arranging rental properties at no cost to affected families. Currently, over 1,400 individuals are staying in emergency shelters.

FEMA has deployed 150 personnel to assist in the aftermath, and additional search teams and dogs are expected to arrive within the next few days.

Residents were allowed to return to parts of west Maui on Friday, although the fire zone in Lahaina remains blocked off. Authorities have cautioned about potential toxic fumes from smoldering areas and continue to conduct search operations.

While hundreds of people are still missing, an accurate count has yet to be determined. Family members, like June Lacuesta, are desperately searching for their loved ones. June Lacuesta, who is trying to locate nine relatives, expressed deep distress when looking at the aftermath of Lahaina town.

The wildfires began with a reported brush fire in Kula, approximately 35 miles (55 km) from Lahaina, after midnight on Tuesday. The power was subsequently cut off in Lahaina around five hours later. Updates posted on Facebook indicated that a three-acre (1.2-hectare) brush fire was contained by 10 a.m. in Lahaina, following an eruption at 6:30 a.m. However, the Lahaina fire flared up again later in the afternoon.

Evacuation orders were posted on social media by the county throughout the day, but it is unclear if residents received them in time as the flames rapidly approached. Witnesses recalled having little warning and being terrified as the fire engulfed the town within minutes.

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