Hawaii says 850 missing after Maui wildfires ahead of Biden visit

Wildfires on Maui have killed at least 114 people, but emergency workers are still searching through the destruction.

Emergency responders are still sifting through the devastation caused by wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui as 850 names remain on a missing persons list.

The grim update comes ahead of a visit to the island by United States President Joe Biden on Monday. To date, 114 people have been confirmed dead in the fires, which were first sparked on August 8, according to Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen. At least 27 of the dead have been identified, he said.

In a video posted on Facebook on Monday, the mayor said the number of missing had decreased from 2,000.

“Over 1,285 individuals have been located safe. We are both saddened and relieved about these numbers,” Bissen said, urging family members of those missing to provide DNA at a local collection centre.

“As we continue the recovery process the number identified will rise and the number of missing may decrease,” he said.

The latest figures were released as authorities reported cadaver dogs and rescue workers had searched about 85 percent of the charred remains of Lahaina, a historic town of about 13,000 people destroyed by the blazes.

The fire in Lahaina, the largest on the island, was about 90 percent contained on Monday, according to Maui County officials, after having burned 8.8 square kilometres (3.4 square miles).

Another fire, in the central Kula area, charred 2.7sq km (a little more than 1sq mile) and was about 85 percent contained. Several smaller fires on the island have also been doused.

The Maui blazes are the deadliest US wildfires since 1918 when northern Minnesota’s Cloquet Fire killed 453 people, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The deadliest wildfire in the country’s history remains Wisconsin’s Peshtigo fire in 1871, which killed 1,152 people.

The wildfires, which damaged more than 2,200 buildings, also represent the deadliest disaster in Hawaii since a tsunami killed 61 people in 1960, a year after the islands became a US state. The causes of the latest fires have not yet been determined.

Biden visit

Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, were set to arrive in Maui on Monday to meet first responders and be briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response.

The president will tour Lahaina and deliver an address later in the day.

“I know how profoundly loss can impact a family and a community and I know nothing can replace the loss of life,” Biden said in a statement ahead of the trip.

“I will do everything in my power to help Maui recover and rebuild from this tragedy. And throughout our efforts, we are focused on respecting sacred lands, cultures, and traditions.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimated it will cost $5.5bn to rebuild Lahaina. FEMA has approved more than $7m in assistance to more than 2,200 households.

Meanwhile, some Maui residents have questioned whether more could have been done as the fires approached. Survivors said they had little warning ahead of the fires, which rapidly tore through Lahaina.

Some dove into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames, which experts said likely spread particularly quickly because of months of low rainfall that dried out vegetation combined with unusually strong winds.

Many survivors have questioned why sirens stationed around the island, intended to warn of impending natural disasters, never sounded. Widespread power and mobile phone outages hampered other forms of alerting residents.

The head of Maui’s emergency management agency resigned due to the criticism. Hawaii Governor Josh Green promised on Sunday to investigate the response and the island’s emergency notification systems.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies