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From Maui, an update on recovery efforts almost a month after the wildfire

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been nearly a month since wildfires destroyed the town of Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, killing at least 115 people. And even though hundreds of people are still unaccounted for, officials say they're making plans to let some survivors back into the burn zone to visit their destroyed homes. NPR's Adrian Florido is on Maui. Hi, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's begin with the victims and the people who are still missing almost a month after the fire. What more can you tell us about them?

FLORIDO: Well, officially, the death toll does stand at 115, like you mentioned. That number has not changed since two weeks ago. It's now been four weeks since the fire and six days since officials ended the search for victims. And the unsettling thing is that there are still almost 400 names on the list of people that the police say are unaccounted for. That number could still change, Ari, as people who are actually safe realize they are on that list but shouldn't be. But people here are also grappling with the prospect that because of the intensity of this fire, some victims may not ever be found and identified and that we might not ever know the true number of victims. It's a haunting prospect that's becoming more real because in the last few days, officials have started the cleanup phase.

SHAPIRO: And I mentioned that officials are considering allowing survivors back into the burn zone. How much of that is because of the pressure they're getting from survivors who want to get back to their properties?

FLORIDO: That's a big part of it. Officials have been getting a lot of pressure to let people do that. I spoke yesterday with a Lahaina resident named Amy Mobbs. Her home survived the fires, but the homes of many of her neighbors did not. And she told me that many people she's spoken to are eager to visit their burned homes in the hopes of finding something that survived.

AMY MOBBS: Anything that's left - people just want something, you know? They want to see it for themselves. And yeah, just to know that maybe something's there that they can find before the demolition and the cleanup and all the other stuff that is going to happen in time.

FLORIDO: The burn zone, Ari, has been almost entirely off-limits since the fire. And a lot of people have been asking, as we mentioned, the Maui County mayor for assurance that they would be allowed in before cleanup started. He finally addressed this a couple of days ago and said that his office is preparing the protocol so that people can get back into the burn zone. But he said that will not happen before hazardous materials are removed from the burn sites, and the timeline on when that's going to happen is not clear yet.

SHAPIRO: And as the weeks go by, where are Lahaina's residents actually living?

FLORIDO: A lot of them are staying in nearby hotels paid for by vouchers from the federal government. Others are staying with friends and family in nearby towns. But a lot of people have also left Maui for the U.S. mainland. And this is one of the great fears here in Lahaina - (clears throat) excuse me - that the recovery from this tragedy is going to take so long and be so expensive that a lot of longtime Lahaina residents won't be able to wait it out or afford to rebuild. I spoke with Makani Christensen. He's been working with a lot of the community help centers that have popped up to provide food and other services to survivors. He told me about an interaction he had at one of these centers.

MAKANI CHRISTENSEN: A lady was out there with her two kids, no slippers. And I looked at her, I was like, hey, are you OK? What do you need? She lost everything. And she says, no, I'm OK. I'm leaving in two days. You know, so it's happening, man. It's 100% happening. Guys are leaving, and they're not coming back.

FLORIDO: The work that Christensen and a lot of other community members are doing right now is aimed at trying to give people the support they need so they can hang on until they are able to rebuild, so that they don't feel like their only choice is to leave.

SHAPIRO: And in the burn zone, how are things going? Where is the cleanup? When does it seem like residents might be able to safely reenter?

FLORIDO: Well, the cleanup is being done in phases. And this first phase that just started is being done by the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA hazardous materials crews are going through the burn zone property by property and searching for hazardous materials, things like paint and solvents and batteries. And once they've removed them, they're going to be applying a layer of adhesive over the ash that's settled on the ground so that wind in later parts of the cleanup don't kick this ash up into the air. One thing the EPA has said is that because, you know, it is something that a lot of people are concerned about, that if their crews do come across suspected human remains during this process, that they're going to stop the cleanup on that property immediately and inform the police.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Adrian Florido on Maui. Thank you.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Ari.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.