Hawaii’s Biggest Disaster Kills 55 With 1,000 Still Missing

Rescue and clean-up crews are now pouring into the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina, which has been leveled to ash and rubble in what the governor describes as the state’s largest-ever natural disaster.

(Bloomberg) — Rescue and clean-up crews are now pouring into the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina, which has been leveled to ash and rubble in what the governor describes as the state’s largest-ever natural disaster. 

Fast-moving wildfires killed at least 55, and the police chief said it’s likely 1,000 people remain unaccounted for. Hawaii Governor Josh Green warned that the death toll is probably going to keep rising as search crews dig through the damage that he characterized as looking like a bomb scene. Accuweather Inc. put the preliminary estimate of damage from the fires at $8 billion to $10 billion.

The blaze was 80% contained, but aerial surveys found more than 270 buildings burned in the seaside resort, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Thousands of residents and tourists fled an area left without electricity, phone service or the internet. 

Photos and videos posted to social media this week depicted apocalyptic scenes. The flames — fanned by strong winds from a hurricane far off the coast — barreled through the town so quickly that residents had little time to flee, and some even jumped into the ocean waters to escape. The Coast Guard said it rescued more than a dozen people from the waters off Lahaina on the West Maui coast.  

The old Lahaina, including its Front Street tourist destination once packed with waterfront restaurants and shops, has been destroyed, Green said. Virtually every building in Lahaina, he said, would need to be replaced, taking many years and billions of dollars. Initial damage estimates in all likelihood will climb as the fullest extent of the wreckage becomes known.

Residents of West Maui and visitors with proof of hotel reservations in the area will regain access to Lahaina starting at noon local time Friday. There will be a daily curfew in the area, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., according to the county. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is assisting with search and rescue efforts in Lahaina, Anne Bink, associate administrator of response and recovery, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. 

The agency has a stockpile of water and ready-to-eat meals on hand, and will arrange short-term shelter for people whose homes have been lost or damaged, in addition to assisting with the eventual rebuilding process, Bink said.

Read More: Hawaii Wildfires Become More Frequent as Drought Withers Grass

The type of grass fire that hit Lahaina spreads extremely quickly, according to climate and wildfire expert Mojtaba Sadegh, an associate professor of civil engineering at Boise State University. The blaze was spread by winds from a high-pressure zone to the north that swept downwards toward Hurricane Dora, a low-pressure zone off to the south.

Read More: Wildfire Expert on What Fed Deadly Flames in Hawaii: Q&A

While such complexities make it harder for scientists to define the role global warming may have had in exacerbating the disaster, climate change is extending the length of fire season and increasing areas burned in many parts of the world. A recent study Sadegh co-authored found that between 2000 and 2019, the number of people in the US exposed to wildfire risk doubled.

Green’s administration was reaching out to nearby hotels emptied of vacationers to secure 2,000 rooms for the displaced. But he also asked island residents whose homes remained intact to take in people needing shelter.

“All of us have a loved one here on Maui that lost a home, that lost a friend,” Green said.

The fire was one of several that erupted this week on Maui, the second-largest of the Hawaiian islands. 

While it is unknown what sparked the flames, they drew their destructive power from some of the same conditions that have fueled devastating blazes this year from Canada to Greece: vegetation sucked dry by drought and strong winds. Some 36% of Maui County is in moderate to severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. 

“This is not too surprising — it’s just surprising that it happened on Maui,” said Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University in California. The speed of the Lahaina fire, which appears to have started on the eastern edge of town and was rapidly blown westward to the sea, likely led to the high death toll, he said.


Buses scooped up tourists Thursday from the resorts that line the shore north of Lahaina and ferried them directly to the island’s Kahului Airport, where more than 1,400 people spent the night awaiting morning flights. Another 1,300 people slept in shelters, according to the county. 

President Joe Biden on Thursday declared a major disaster in Hawaii, freeing up federal funds to aid recovery. “Anyone who has lost a loved one or whose home has been damaged or destroyed is going to get help immediately,” he said at an event in Salt Lake City.

Read More: Biden Vows to Rush Federal Support to Wildfire-Ravaged Hawaii

Crews are working to clear roads and other areas of trees and debris. Emergency responders continued combing the wreckage for survivors or the deceased.

Wildfires used to be rare in Hawaii, but they started becoming more frequent in the 1990s as many of the old agricultural plantations and ranches closed, said Clay Trauernicht, a wildfire management specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Invasive, non-native grasses took over fallow land and have provided new fuel for blazes. 

Some communities are trying to reforest these grass lands, using tree shade to control the grasses, or return them to agriculture, but not at the scale needed, he said.

“We’ve just primed ourselves for a disaster like this,” Trauernicht said.

–With assistance from Christine Buurma.

(Adds details on access to Lahaina resuming in sixth paragraph)

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