Death Total Grows as Hawaii Works to Recover from Wildfires

14 August 2023

Hawaii's Governor Joshua Green told U.S. broadcaster CBS that the number of dead from wildfires on the island of Maui will continue to grow over the next week.

Green said the search for bodies and survivors will take at least 10 days and it is "impossible" to guess how many people died. He said he expects crews will find 10 to 20 bodies each day.

"We are prepared for many tragic stories," Green said.

Two people examine a burned house after an inferno destroyed much of the historic Maui resort town of Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 13, 2023. (Sandy Hooper/USA Today Network via REUTERS)
Two people examine a burned house after an inferno destroyed much of the historic Maui resort town of Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 13, 2023. (Sandy Hooper/USA Today Network via REUTERS)

At least 96 people died when a fire spread through the town of Lahaina on Maui last Tuesday. Officials said the fires moved nearly two kilometers per minute.

Searching for bodies

It is the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii since a huge ocean wave killed 61 people in 1960. It will be the costliest disaster since a hurricane in 1992. Green estimated the damage to be $5.6 billion.

The National Fire Protection Association said the fires on Maui caused the most deaths from a wildfire in the U.S. since 1918 when over 450 died in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Firefighters were still trying to contain small fires over the weekend. Dogs trained to look for human remains helped people search the burned Lahaina area. The town was home to about 13,000 people.

"They're going street by street, block by block," said Jeff Hickman, of the Hawaii Department of Defense.

Officials have said the area might be unsafe for some time. The fire might have released dangerous gases and made water undrinkable. People who cannot return home, or those whose homes have burned, will live in hotels and rental homes.

Searching for a cause

Green said officials are investigating the cause of the fire. They also want to know why safety officials failed to activate some emergency signals.

Green said dry weather and winds from a hurricane caused the fire to move quickly.

Those in the area said they had little warning about the danger. They said the fire surrounded their homes in minutes. Some people jumped into the ocean to escape.

The fire damaged power lines and reduced mobile phone service, so some people did not get messages that the fire was getting close. Warning sirens placed around the island that are supposed to turn on in case of a disaster did not turn on.

‘We'll know soon whether or not they did enough to get those sirens going," Green told the broadcaster MSNBC.

Searching for comfort

Some people went to a Catholic church or attended other religious services over the weekend.

Akanesi Vaa was at a church. She said she and her family left their car and climbed a fence to get to a safe place.

"I think a lot of us needed to hear today's message," she said. "All these ashes are going to turn into beauty. I know Lahaina will come back ten times stronger."

Scott Landis is a Christian church leader in Makena. He said about 100 people attended his services – twice the usual number.

"You could tell people were here, looking for a word of hope," he said. Many, he added, did not know the location of friends and family.

Asking for help

Some people sent messages on social media services such as Instagram asking people to look for relatives.

"People are being found alive and severely disoriented due to what they have gone through," wrote Heather Baylosis on Saturday. She was looking for the parents of her partner.

Famous television star Oprah Winfrey lives on Maui part of the year. She brought supplies such as towels, water and personal washing products to those who were staying in a shelter. She warned that, in time, the people documenting the disaster will leave and the story will no longer be in newspapers and on television.

"But we're all still going to be here trying to figure out what is the best way to rebuild," Winfrey said.

J.P. Mayoga is helping, too. He works as a cook at a large hotel. Now, he is making meals for 200 hotel employees and their family members who have been living there since Tuesday.

He said it is good that the co-workers can be together.

"Everybody has their story, and everybody has lost something...And they understand what's going on in each other's lives."

I'm Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by Reuters and the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

block –n. an area of land in a city that is bordered by streets

rental –adj. property, such as a home, that is offered for use for a temporary period for a cost called rent

siren –n. a device that makes a very loud noise that is meant to warn people of danger

location –n. the place where something is

disoriented –adj. to become unable to understand what is happening around you

figure out –v. (phrasal) to come to understand or to find something out by thinking

We want to hear from you. How do you feel about the people in Maui now that you know more about what happened last week?