KAHULUI, Hawaii — The death toll from the Maui wildfires is now at 89, officials said on Saturday, making it the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century.
The scale of the damage came into sharper focus on Saturday, as search teams with cadaver dogs sifted through the ruins of Lahaina, four days after a fast-moving blaze leveled the historic resort town, obliterating buildings and melting cars.
The cost to rebuild Lahaina was estimated at $5.5 billion, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with more than 2,200 structures damaged or destroyed and more than 2,100 acres (850 hectares) burned.
Governor Josh Green warned at a news conference on Saturday afternoon that the death toll would continue to rise as more bodies were discovered.
Officials vowed to examine the state’s emergency notification systems after some residents questioned whether more could have been done to warn people before the fire overtook their homes. Some were forced to wade into the Pacific Ocean to escape.
Sirens stationed around the island — intended to warn of impending natural disasters — never sounded, and widespread power and cellular outages hampered other forms of alerts.
The state’s attorney general, Anne Lopez, said she was launching a review of the decision-making both before and during the fire, while Mr. Green told CNN he had authorized a review of the emergency response.
Local officials have described a nightmarish confluence of factors, including communications network failures, powerful wind gusts from an offshore hurricane and a separate wildfire dozens of miles away, that made it nearly impossible to coordinate in real time with the emergency management agencies that would typically issue warnings and evacuation orders.
The death toll made the inferno, which erupted on Tuesday, Hawaii’s worst natural disaster in history, surpassing a tsunami that killed 61 people in 1960, a year after Hawaii became a US state.
The latest death toll exceeded the 85 people who perished in a 2018 fire in the town of Paradise, California, and was the highest toll from a wildfire since 1918, when the Cloquet fire in Minnesota and Wisconsin claimed 453 lives.
Touring Lahaina earlier on Saturday, Mr. Green said state and federal agencies were working to aid those who had survived.
“Our focus now is to reunite people where we can, and to get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding,” he said.
Authorities began allowing residents back into west Maui on Friday, although the fire zone in Lahaina remained barricaded. Officials warned there could be toxic fumes from smoldering areas and said search operations were continuing.
“It’s going to be sad to get down there,” said Za Dacruz, 33, as he waited on Friday in a traffic jam to try to return to Lahaina. “We’re just looking for everyone to be alive, to be safe – that’s all we’re trying to do. And the rest? We’ll go from there.”
Hundreds of people were still missing, though a precise count was not clear.
At a family assistance center in Kahului, June Lacuesta said he was trying to locate nine relatives who had not been heard from since Tuesday.
“When I see Lahaina town itself, I cannot describe the feelings I get,” said Mr. Lacuesta, who was headed to a church shelter next to continue his search.
The disaster began just after midnight on Tuesday when a brush fire was reported in the town of Kula, roughly 35 miles (56 km) from Lahaina.
About five hours later, power was knocked out in Lahaina. In updates posted on Facebook that morning, Maui County said a three-acre (1.2-hectare) brush fire cropped up in Lahaina around 6:30 a.m. but had been contained by 10 a.m.
Subsequent updates were focused on the Kula fire, which had burned hundreds of acres and forced some local evacuations. But at around 3:30 p.m., according to the county’s updates, the Lahaina fire flared up.
Some residents began evacuating while people, including hotel guests, on the town’s west side were instructed to shelter in place. In the ensuing hours, the county posted a series of evacuation orders on Facebook, though it was not clear whether residents were receiving them as people frantically fled the fast-advancing flames.
Some witnesses said they had little warning, describing their terror as the blaze destroyed the town around them in what seemed to be a matter of minutes. — Reuters