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Maui officials say it was 'impossible' to warn everyone as wildfires spread quickly

In this photo released by the County of Maui, Lahaina Mayor Richard Bissen walks past the remains of the Sugar Cane Train depot on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Authorities in Hawaii are working to evacuate people from Maui as firefighters work to contain wildfires and put out flare-ups. (County of Maui via AP)
AP
In this photo released by the County of Maui, Lahaina Mayor Richard Bissen walks past the remains of the Sugar Cane Train depot on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Authorities in Hawaii are working to evacuate people from Maui as firefighters work to contain wildfires and put out flare-ups. (County of Maui via AP)

Police chief says the lack of communication and victims' difficulty to get to shelters is making it difficult to get an accurate count of the missing after fires that killed at least 80 people.

Updated August 11, 2023 at 9:19 AM ET

Officials say it could take years — or longer — to repair the damage from this week's wildfires that devastated parts of Maui, claimed dozens of lives and razed a historic town.

That acknowledgement came as the death toll on Maui was raised to at least 55 people. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green warned at a news conference that the death toll will rise, as rescuers reach parts of the island that had been inaccessible due to the three ongoing fires.

"We are seeing loss of life," Green said. "As you know, the number has been rising and we will continue to see loss of life." He said that the fires were the "greatest emergency we've seen in decades."

Green said many hundreds of homes were destroyed and that thousands of people would need to find places to stay, including in hotels and with community members.

He called on people around the state to take in displaced residents from west Maui if they had the room to accommodate them.

When asked for specific numbers on how many structures had been burned, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said: "I'm telling you, none of it's there. It's all burned to the ground."

This graphic shows the location of fires on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.
/ AP
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AP
This graphic shows the location of fires on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.

Officials painted a picture of absolute devastation in the historic town of Lahaina, a popular tourist destination and economic hub that is home to some 12,000 people.

Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura said there were still active fires, and with the current weather pattern, potential for rapid fire behavior. He said people still needed to stay out of the burn areas because it was still very dangerous, with falling telephone poles and other safety hazards.

Earlier on Thursday, Maui County officials provided more details on the three active fires in the area: the Lahaina, Pulehu, and Upcountry fires. In Lahaina, they said, the fire was 80% contained as of this morning. The Pulehu fire was 70% contained this morning after overnight crews used heavy equipment to create firebreaks. And the Upcountry fire, officials said, had an undetermined containment percentage.

Widespread outages hinder search and recovery efforts

Officials don't know how many people may be missing, as search and communication efforts have been hampered by the lack of power, phone and internet service.

More than 10,000 customers are without power in Maui, according to a tracker from PowerOutage.us.

Utility company Hawaiian Electric says crews will begin damage assessment and restoration efforts once areas are safe, and is asking west Maui customers to prepare for extended power outages that could last "several weeks."

Both tourists and residents continue to evacuate the island, with busses bringing people from west Maui to the main central airport, Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman toldMorning Edition.

People wait with their luggage at the Maui airport in Kahului, Hawaii, on Thursday as school buses continue shuttling people over from the west side of the island.
Claire Rush / AP
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AP
People wait with their luggage at the Maui airport in Kahului, Hawaii, on Thursday as school buses continue shuttling people over from the west side of the island.

State officials are discouraging non-essential travel to Maui, and major U.S. airlines have been slashing prices and adding flights to help get travelers off the island.

And those who haven't lost their homes are not yet sure when they'll be able to return.

Bissen said that can happen "as soon as we can try to provide the certainty that we have recovered those that have perished," difficult work that continues Friday.

Meanwhile, the state's Office of Consumer Protection has enacted a price freeze for the island of Maui, meaning commodities must be sold at pre-emergency levels until at least the end of this month.

How federal aid can help — now and later

Volunteers with King's Cathedral Maui bring in donations on Aug. 10, 2023 in Kahului, Hawaii.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Volunteers with King's Cathedral Maui bring in donations on Aug. 10, 2023 in Kahului, Hawaii.

President Biden approved a federal major disaster declaration on Thursday, making funding available to people, governments and nonprofits affected by the wildfires.

The White House said he also spoke on the phone with Green and expressed "his deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property."

Hawaii is also receiving assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell says the agency is deploying search and rescue teams and communications equipment, as well as providing food, water and cots for those who have been displaced.

"So the focus today and the next few days is on making sure we have all the right resources to save lives, but also to support those people that are currently being sheltered," she toldMorning Edition's A Martínez on her way to Hawaii.

The disaster declaration enables FEMA to support not only the initial response but the island's recovery efforts, Criswell explained. That includes things like providing long-term temporary housing and reimbursing jurisdictions and individuals for repair costs.

"We also understand that people have lost everything. And so this is designed to jumpstart their recovery," she said, adding that FEMA also offers resources like crisis counseling and disaster unemployment assistance.

Wildfire wreckage is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities.
Rick Bowmer / AP
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AP
Wildfire wreckage is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities.

The state health department says it's also offering crisis mental health services to anyone experiencing emotional or psychological distress as a result of the wildfires.

Criswell says FEMA will be in Maui "as long as the governor needs us there" and "for as long as it takes." It also has an office in Oahu to provide additional support. While Criswell said it never gets easier to see this kind of devastation wrought on a community, she says it's moving to see how they come together in order to rebuild.

"It always gives me hope to see such great human spirit and human collaboration of people, neighbors helping neighbors really, really stepping up to make sure that they're taking care of each other's needs," she said.

But Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, speaking to Morning Edition on Thursday, cautioned that it will take the island and its people a long time to recover.

"A lot of individuals will have mental health issues that they're suffering. They have never been in a situation where they just overnight lost the businesses that they invested in," she said. "It's going to take years, sometimes maybe decades, for us to replace some of the infrastructure, including schools and roads."

NPR's Kevin Drew contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ravenna Koenig
Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.