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Maui officials say it was 'impossible' to warn everyone as wildfires spread quickly

In this photo released by the County of Maui, Lahaina Mayor Richard Bissen walks past the remains of the Sugar Cane Train depot on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Authorities in Hawaii are working to evacuate people from Maui as firefighters work to contain wildfires and put out flare-ups. (County of Maui via AP)
AP
In this photo released by the County of Maui, Lahaina Mayor Richard Bissen walks past the remains of the Sugar Cane Train depot on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Authorities in Hawaii are working to evacuate people from Maui as firefighters work to contain wildfires and put out flare-ups. (County of Maui via AP)

Updated August 12, 2023 at 3:59 AM ET

Officials say it could take years — or longer — to repair the damage from this week's wildfires that devastated parts of Maui, claimed dozens of lives and razed a historic town.

As of Friday at 9 p.m. local time, the death toll on Maui was raised to at least 80 people, Maui County officials wrote in a press release. Earlier that day, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green warned at a news conference that the death toll will rise, as rescuers reach parts of the island that had been inaccessible due to the three ongoing fires.

"We are seeing loss of life," Green said. "As you know, the number has been rising and we will continue to see loss of life." He said that the fires were the "greatest emergency we've seen in decades."

Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier estimated the number of missing people at approximately 1,000, though he cautioned that "honestly we don't know."

"Doesn't mean that's how many that we have that have passed. I'm not saying that number at all," he said at Thursday's news conference. "But because we can't contact them, and because they can't come into the greater valley as quickly or as much as we'd like, because they're actually in shelter, until we get some of those basic things set up, we're not going to have that number."

Green said many hundreds of homes were destroyed and at least 2,000 people will need to find places to stay, including in hotels and with community members.

He called on people around the state to take in displaced residents from west Maui if they had the room to accommodate them.

When asked for specific numbers on how many structures had been burned, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said: "I'm telling you, none of it's there. It's all burned to the ground."

Officials painted a picture of absolute devastation in the historic town of Lahaina, a popular tourist destination and economic hub that is home to some 12,000 people.

This graphic shows the location of fires on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.
/ AP
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AP
This graphic shows the location of fires on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.

Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura said there were still active fires, and with the current weather pattern, potential for rapid fire behavior. He said people still needed to stay out of the burn areas because it was still very dangerous, with falling telephone poles and other safety hazards.

As of Friday at 9 p.m. local time, firefighters continued to work "to extinguish flare-ups and contain fires in Lahaina, Pulehu/Kihei and Upcountry Maui," according to the County of Maui Communications Office.

The office also said a total of 1,418 people were at a number of emergency evacuation shelters.

Search efforts remain underway — helped by a FEMA team with two cadaver-searching dogs — as firefighters continue to battle the blazes.

County officials are urging people to practice patience and heed local safety warnings as that work continues.

"I know that you guys don't have some of the supplies, you don't have power," Pelletier said. "But we have to respect the fact that we've got loved ones in that earth and we've got to do the right thing and get them out the right way. That's going to take time."

The fires caught people off guard

A Maui police officer blocks a road to prevent residents and visitors from driving to Lahaina in western Maui on Thursday.
Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Maui police officer blocks a road to prevent residents and visitors from driving to Lahaina in western Maui on Thursday.

Residents say there were no warning sirens ahead of the fires, with some telling the Associated Press and CBS News that they were alerted to danger only when they saw or heard the flames nearby.

Hawaii boasts what it calls the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, the AP reported, with about 400 sirens across the island chain.

But Maui's warning sirens were not triggered on Tuesday when the Lahaina fire began, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub told the AP, citing departmental records.

He said the county sent emergency alerts to mobile phones, TVs and radio stations instead. However, spotty service may have stopped those messages from reaching everyone who needed them.

Ventura, the fire chief, said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighborhoods that it was "physically impossible" to get messages to the emergency management agencies in time.

Bissen, Maui County's mayor, told NBC's TODAY on Friday that "this was an impossible situation."

"The winds that hit us on that side of the island, in fact, in other parts of the island in some areas, the gusts were up to 80 miles an hour. Some sustained between 45 and 60 to 65 miles an hour," he said. "So everything happened so quickly. I can't comment on whether or not the sirens sounded or not, but I know that the fires came up so quickly and they spread so fast."

He said at Thursday's news conference that mandatory evacuations had been ordered in affected areas on the western side of the island, including Lahaina, though visitors were asked to shelter in place because dozens of downed power lines had limited access to the roads out of town.

Police chief Pelletier also addressed questions about the warning system on Thursday, stressing that "nobody saw this coming, period."

Green, the governor, said the tragedy was especially difficult to anticipate because it "came in the night with high winds." He also noted the state is short on firefighting resources and personnel, making any response even more challenging.

He pledged that fire safety will be a significant priority in the rebuilding process, acknowledging the realities of extreme weather.

"Climate change is here, and it's affecting the islands, and I think that's what you're seeing with this fire," Green said.

Widespread outages hinder search and recovery efforts

Officials don't know how many people may be missing, as search and communication efforts have been hampered by the lack of power, phone and internet service.

More than 10,000 customers are without power in Maui, according to a tracker from PowerOutage.us.

Utility company Hawaiian Electric says crews will begin damage assessment and restoration efforts once areas are safe, and is asking west Maui customers to prepare for extended power outages that could last "several weeks."

Both tourists and residents continue to evacuate the island, with buses bringing people from west Maui to the main central airport, Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman told Morning Edition.

People wait with their luggage at the Maui airport in Kahului, Hawaii, on Thursday as school buses continue shuttling people over from the west side of the island.
Claire Rush / AP
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AP
People wait with their luggage at the Maui airport in Kahului, Hawaii, on Thursday as school buses continue shuttling people over from the west side of the island.

State officials are discouraging non-essential travel to Maui, and major U.S. airlines have been slashing prices and adding flights to help get travelers off the island.

And those who haven't lost their homes are not yet sure when they'll be able to return.

Bissen said that can happen "as soon as we can try to provide the certainty that we have recovered those that have perished," difficult work that continues Friday.

Elwira Mehlich and her 14-year-old daughter, Heidi, were among the hundreds of evacuees sheltering at the Hawaiʻi Convention Center on Oahu on Wednesday.

She told Hawaii Public Radio that she didn't know when — or even whether — they would be able to get back to their home in Lahaina, and would have to pay for hotel accommodations out of pocket in the meantime.

"We cannot go home," Mehlich said. "We are stuck here with two small bags. My daughter should go to school by Monday, but it's closed."

Meanwhile, the state's Office of Consumer Protection has enacted a price freeze for the island of Maui, meaning commodities must be sold at pre-emergency levels until at least the end of this month.

How federal aid can help — now and later

Volunteers with King's Cathedral Maui bring in donations on Aug. 10, 2023 in Kahului, Hawaii.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Volunteers with King's Cathedral Maui bring in donations on Aug. 10, 2023 in Kahului, Hawaii.

Green said Thursday that the eventual cost of both public and private repairs will be "in the billions of dollars without a doubt," but stressed that the government's main focus is still on the lives lost.

President Biden approved a federal major disaster declaration on Thursday, making funding available to people, governments and nonprofits affected by the wildfires.

The White House said he also spoke on the phone with Green and expressed "his deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property."

Hawaii is also receiving assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell says the agency is deploying search and rescue teams and communications equipment, as well as providing food, water and cots for those who have been displaced.

"So the focus today and the next few days is on making sure we have all the right resources to save lives, but also to support those people that are currently being sheltered," she told Morning Edition's A Martínez on her way to Hawaii.

The disaster declaration enables FEMA to support not only the initial response but the island's recovery efforts, Criswell explained. That includes things like providing long-term temporary housing and reimbursing jurisdictions and individuals for repair costs.

"We also understand that people have lost everything. And so this is designed to jumpstart their recovery," she said, adding that FEMA also offers resources like crisis counseling and disaster unemployment assistance.

Wildfire wreckage is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities.
Rick Bowmer / AP
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AP
Wildfire wreckage is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities.

The state health department says it's also offering crisis mental health services to anyone experiencing emotional or psychological distress as a result of the wildfires.

A number of nonprofits and other organizations have also set up relief efforts.

Criswell says FEMA will be in Maui "as long as the governor needs us there" and "for as long as it takes." It also has an office in Oahu to provide additional support. While Criswell said it never gets easier to see this kind of devastation wrought on a community, she says it's moving to see how they come together in order to rebuild.

"It always gives me hope to see such great human spirit and human collaboration of people, neighbors helping neighbors really, really stepping up to make sure that they're taking care of each other's needs," she said.

But Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, speaking to Morning Edition on Thursday, cautioned that it will take the island and its people a long time to recover.

"A lot of individuals will have mental health issues that they're suffering. They have never been in a situation where they just overnight lost the businesses that they invested in," she said. "It's going to take years, sometimes maybe decades, for us to replace some of the infrastructure, including schools and roads."

NPR's Kevin Drew contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.