Search efforts in Hawaii starting to move a little faster, official says. Follow live updates

By REBECCA BOONE (Associated Press)

Follow live updates about wildfires that have devastated parts of Maui in Hawaii this week, destroying a historic town and forcing evacuations. The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the island chain, was partly to blame for strong winds that initially drove the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.

A state official in Hawaii says the search-and-rescue operation in Maui is taking painstaking efforts to finds survivors and victims of last week’s deadly mass fire.

Jeff Hickman is the director of public affairs for the Hawaii Department of Defense. He said on NBC’s “Today” show that teams are “going street by street, block by block between cars, and soon they’ll start to enter buildings.”

Hickman said the Hawaii National Guard has over 110 personnel assisting Maui County with the search and rescue operation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also on the ground. He said they have about 400 personnel and are providing dogs trained in finding cadavers.

Hickman added that the efforts are “going to start to move a little faster than they have in the past couple of days. And hopefully we bring some closure to those on Maui.”

The number of confirmed deaths stood at 96 around 9 p.m. Sunday, Maui County said in a statement. That number is expected to rise.

Former President Barack Obama has appeared in a video promoting a live telethon on Monday to raise funds for the American Red Cross of Hawaii in support of its relief effort for wildfire victims.

Malama Maui, hosted by KHON-TV, is scheduled to be held from 5 am. to 10 a.m. on the local news station.

“As someone who grew up in Hawaii, someone who has taken my family to enjoy the incredible beauty of that island and the hospitality of the people of Lahaina, we now find ourselves mourning the lives that are lost,” Obama said.

He noted “thoughts and prayers are not enough” and asked the public to help the Red Cross and Malama Maui “provide direct support to people who are desperately in need.”

“If all of us, the Ohana, pull together and do as much as we can to give back to an island and a town and people who have given us so much, I’m absolutely confident that Lahaina and Maui and those families are going to be able to rebuild,” Obama said.

The KHON website provided a phone number and a Red Cross link to make donations.

The Maui Police Department updated the number of confirmed deaths to 96 around 9 p.m. Sunday, Maui County said in a statement.

In a video update released earlier on Sunday, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said more than 2,700 structures were destroyed in Lahaina and “an estimated value of $5.6 billion has gone away.”

Green said the response has been “comprehensive” in the past several days: “We are bringing the full force of government to try to do all we can to alleviate suffering.”

FEMA is overseeing the federal response in Hawaii with 416 personnel including FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.

“We’ve had a lot of time to discuss how we will ultimately rebuild Lahaina and support Maui,” Green said.

Green said President Joe Biden has “authorized the full force of the federal government in support of us.”

A federal urban search and rescue team will be accompanied by 20 dogs that can locate the places where people have perished.

“I will tell you this, as a physician, it is a harrowing sight in Maui,” Green said. “When those providers, the police and this division, do come across scenes in houses or businesses it is very difficult for them because they know, ultimately, they will be sharing with our people that there have been more fatalities. I do expect the numbers to rise.”

The Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Honolulu celebrated Mass on Sunday at a church in Kapalua — just up the road from fire-ravaged Lahaina — and urged those reeling from the wildfire not to give up hope.

“How could this be a good, loving God allowing such things to happen?” the Most Rev. Clarence “Larry” Silva asked. “We need to wrestle with that. The worst thing we can do is to give God the silent treatment. If we are angry with God we should tell him so. He can take it. He will still love us.”

During the Mass, Silva read a message from Pope Francis that he was praying for those who lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods — as well as for first responders

After the service, Silva declared “God loves us in tragedies and good times” and urged those present “to share that faith with others who may lose it or don’t have it so that they can go on and they don’t give up hope.”

Several parishioners from Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in Lahaina attended the Mass, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the epicenter of the destruction.

Taufa Samisoni was present. His uncle, aunt, cousin and cousin’s 7-year-old son all died. Samisoni’s wife Katalina cited a Bible reading from Sunday’s Mass about how Jesus’ apostle Peter walked on water because of faith — and she woud rely on faith to cope. “If Peter can walk on water, yes we can. We will get to the shore,” she said, her voice quivering.

The Lahaina church survived the fire even though the adjoining Catholic school burned. Administrators are exploring potentially holding classes for the 200 students in hotel ballrooms and conference rooms.

Silva told The Associated Press the community is worried about the children, who have witnessed tragedy and are anxious. “The more they can be in a normal situation with their peers and learning and having fun, I think the better off they’ll be,” he said.

JP Mayoga, a cook at the Westin Maui in Kaanapali, is still making breakfast, lunch and dinner on a daily basis. But instead of serving hotel guests, he’s feeding the roughly 200 hotel employees and their families now living there after Tuesday’s deadly fire ravaged Lahaina just south of the resort.

His home was spared. But his partner, two young children, father and another Lahaina local are all staying in a hotel room together, as it has running water and is safer than the toxic debris now covering Lahaina.

“Everybody has their story and everybody lost something, so everybody can be there for each other and they understand what’s going on in each other’s lives,” he said of his fellow employees.

Such scenes of community support were seen on the beach just outside the hotel the previous day, when a catamaran that had sailed up to Kaanapali from further south arrived with water, food, batteries, toiletries and other basic necessities.

Lahaina residents said they found comfort and hope in community solidarity. But for many, the shock of the loss was only intensifying.

“This is sinking in,” said Mark Holland, a lifelong Lahaina resident who walked amid the ruins of its commercial and social hub for the first time after the fire. “The things that I saw I cannot describe,” he said through tears.

The wildfire that laid waste to wooden homes and historic streets in mere hours last week has magnified concerns about a chronic housing shortage. Maui County estimates more than 80% of the more than 2,700 structures in hard-hit Lahaina were damaged or destroyed, and that some 4,500 residents are newly in need of shelter.

Concerns are multiplying that any homes rebuilt there will target affluent outsiders seeking a tropical haven. That would turbo-charge what is already one of Hawaii’s gravest and biggest challenges: the exodus and displacement of Native Hawaiian and local-born residents who can no longer afford to live in their homeland.

Seeking to help the displaced, the West Hawaiʻi Realtors Association has curated a housing inventory catalog online — encompassing the entire state — in collaboration with other retail associations. The newly launched website details all available housing options in real-time and provides a platform for those willing to offer up a second home, vacation rental, or additional space for a displaced Maui resident.

Richy Palalay so closely identifies with his Maui hometown that he had a tattoo artist permanently ink “Lahaina Grown” on his forearms when he was 16. “Lahaina is my home. Lahaina is my pride. My life. My joy,” he said in a text message.

But with the median price of a Maui home is $1.2 million, that puts a single-family home out of reach for the typical wage earner. It’s not possible for many to even buy a condo, with the median condo price at $850,000.

Still, Palalay vows to stay. “I don’t have any money to help rebuild. I’ll put on a construction hat and help get this ship going. I’m not going to leave this place,” he said. “Where am I going to go?”

Lylas Kanemoto has been searching for her cousin, Glen Yoshino, since the inferno swept through Lahaina. Kanemoto said the family is in the process of submitting a DNA test from Yoshino’s nephew in case any remains are found that might belong to her cousin. Other family members, she said, were already found dead in their car. “At least we have closure for them, but the loss and heartbreak is unbearable for many. We as a community has to just embrace each other and support our families, friends, and our community to our best of our abilities,” Kanemoto told the AP by text message on Sunday.

Hawaii officials urged tourists to avoid traveling to Maui as many hotels prepared to house evacuees and first responders on the island that faces a long recovery from the wildfire that demolished a historic town and killed more than 90 people.

About 46,000 residents and visitors have flown out of Kahului Airport in West Maui since the devastation in Lahaina became clear Wednesday, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“In the weeks ahead, the collective resources and attention of the federal, state and county government, the West Maui community, and the travel industry must be focused on the recovery of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses,” the agency said in a statement late Saturday.

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, said she walked through Lahaina with FEMA on Saturday to see firsthand the extent of the loss.

As she walked through the destroyed town, Hirono said she passed a line of charred cars by the ocean where it was clear to her the occupants had fled quickly — likely into the water.

“We are in a period of mourning and loss,” Hirono said.

Hirono said the attorney general has launched a review into why there were not warning sirens alerting people to the danger and allowing them to flee before wildfires quickly consumed the town.

Hirono said the tragedy showed that Hawaii has just as much of a wildfire threat as Western states and more attention needs to be paid to wildfire prevention on the island.

“There is not enough recognition that we are going to have to combat these kinds of wildfires,” Hirono said.

In a press conference Saturday, Gov. Josh Green said the number of confirmed deaths from the Maui wildfires had risen to 89, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.

Maui County later raised the confirmed death toll to 93.

There were 2,200 structures destroyed or damaged just in West Maui, and 86% of those were residential buildings, Green said.

“The losses approach $6 billion in estimate,” Green said, adding that it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.

Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.

“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” he said. “That’s what we experienced, that’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”


Associated Press journalists Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska; Ty O’Neil in Lahaina, Maui; Christopher Weber in Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Claire Rush and Jennifer Kelleher in Honolulu; Christopher Megerian in Salt Lake City; Bobby Caina Calvan in New York; Caleb Jones in Concord, Massachusetts; Brittany Peterson in Denver; Janie Har in San Francisco; and Sophie Austin in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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