US & Canada

Maui fire: 93 killed as governor warns of ‘significant’ death toll rise

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Ninety-three people have been killed and hundreds are unaccounted for days after fires broke out in Hawaii.

Ninety-three people have been confirmed killed in the Maui fire that razed the historic town of Lahaina, marking the most deadly US fire in a century.

The death toll could rise “significantly”, Hawaii Governor Josh Green warned on Saturday, as forensic work continues to identify the victims.

Hundreds remain unaccounted for while hundreds of others fill shelters across Maui after fleeing the flames.

“It’s an impossible day,” Mr Green said.

The fire will “certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced”, he said.

“We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding.”

Meanwhile, it remains unclear if early warning systems were used or if they malfunctioned, with many people telling the BBC they were not forewarned about the fires.

The state’s attorney general is conducting a “comprehensive review” into how the authorities responded.

Representative Jill Tokuda of Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district told the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme on Sunday that “serious questions” needed to be addressed.

“There’s every justification for everyone to feel angry in this particular situation, and we all want answers,” Ms Tokuda said.

She also described her visit to Lahaina over the weekend as “heart-breaking”.

“We have so many memories there, so many of our families and friends lost everything, [or are] still looking for loved ones.”

The fires, which started on Tuesday, were fuelled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane.

According to Mr Green, gusts from that storm reached speeds of as high as 81mph (130km/h), fanning the flames to travel at one mile per minute and giving people little time to escape.

While the fires are now largely under control, efforts to fully extinguish them are continuing in parts of the island, including around Lahaina, which has been devastated.

Authorities have focused efforts on combing through what is left of the coastal area of the island, using sniffer dogs trained to detect bodies to look for signs of corpses under the rubble.

So far, they have covered only 3% of the search area, said a visibly emotional Maui Police Chief John Pelletier.

“None of us really understand the size of this yet,” he said.

Jeremy Greenberg, a senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has told the BBC that extra support being sent included urban search and rescue, and fire suppression teams.

“The absolute number one priority is survivor safety,” he said.

Mr Greenberg added that while close to 1,000 people are still yet to be contacted, some of these may be safe but out of reach for a number of reasons.

In the emergency shelter at Maui’s War Memorial Complex on Saturday, hundreds of evacuees continued to gather, receiving food, toiletries and medical aid from a still-growing number of volunteers.

Large whiteboards noted the most pressing needs – batteries, water, and generators – and an all-caps note that no more clothing was needed.

Keapo Bissen, a member of the War Memorial shelter team, said the list of the missing was fluctuating hour to hour as more people reported absent loved ones, and others were found.

“We’ve had a lot of great reunions happen in this parking lot,” she said. “That’s really been the bright side in all of this.”

It is thought that more than 2,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed since the fires broke out. The majority of these were homes in the Lahaina area.

The main road to Lahaina, the Honoapiilani highway, was briefly re-opened to residents on Saturday, before quickly being closed again.

Hundreds of Lahaina residents have stayed in line on the highway anyway, hoping to be allowed through.

Liz Germansky, who lost her home in the fire, is angry about the response. “The government’s getting in the way of people helping,” she says, sitting in that same traffic queue.

Another route, the Kahekili Highway, is open, but locals say it’s far too dangerous to attempt that drive. The road – known simply here as “the backroad” to Lahaina – is barely wide enough for one car, has many hair-pin turns, and a steep drop-off.

“We can’t drive this truck there. It’s a cliff,” said resident Ruth Lee who was stuck in traffic trying to bring supplies to her family that stayed behind.

The cost of rebuilding Maui has been estimated at $5.5bn (£4.3bn), according to the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) and FEMA, which is co-ordinating the relief effort to Hawaii from Washington.

Helicopter pilot Richard Olsten has flown over Maui and told the BBC that even most of the boats in the harbour were burnt and had sunk.

“The historic buildings, the church, the missionary building and so forth – all gone,” he said.

“The main tourist area where all the shops and restaurants are, the historic Front Street – everything burnt to the ground.”

Felicia Johnson, who owns a printing business in the city of Kahului, Maui, is organising a massive grassroots response to the disaster.

Her family is from the Lahaina area. She has amassed hundreds of pounds of donated supplies to bring in, but has been unable to shuttle them through the government checkpoint.

She says that pleading with authorities to let her enter with her donated goods is the hardest part for her emotionally – not the devastation she has witnessed while dropping off supplies.”That’s the part that I’m so wrecked on, is I got to keep begging you to come in to feed people.”

Many of the docks in the area are too badly damaged or destroyed to bring in supplies by boat, Ms Johnson said. Some people that have made the journey have swum the supplies to the shore.

Some of the young men helping her load supplies blame government mismanagement and bureaucracy.

“Too many chiefs, not enough warriors,” said Bradah Young, 25.

“Everybody is in charge but nobody is moving,” said another man.

As they departed in hope of being allowed through the checkpoint, one man threw up a shaka, a traditional hand greeting in Hawaii.

How have you been affected by the fires in Maui? Please share your story by emailing: haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk.

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