KAHULUI: President Joe Biden will head to fire-ravaged Hawaii next week to meet with survivors and first responders still hunting for victims, the White House said Wednesday, as the death toll from the devastating blazes surpassed 100. The fire, which levelled the historic town of Lahaina on Maui, is the deadliest in the United States for more than a century, and state Governor Josh Green has repeatedly warned the death toll could yet grow significantly. Maui County officials updated that toll to 106 on Tuesday, with Green saying earlier that just over a quarter of the disaster zone had been searched by dogs trained to sniff for bodies.
Refrigerated containers were being pressed into use as makeshift morgues at the Maui police department’s forensic facility, an AFP journalist observed, as the largely rural island struggled to cope with the sheer number of dead. Biden and First Lady Jill Biden on Monday will “meet with first responders, survivors, as well as federal, state, and local officials” on Maui, the White House said in a statement. The president then tweeted: “I remain committed to delivering everything the people of Hawaii need as they recover from this disaster.”
Biden had quickly declared a “major disaster” in Hawaii after last week’s inferno, allowing the deployment of emergency assistance from the federal government, and has talked several times with Green. But he has been criticized by the Republican opposition for what they characterized as a timid response to the fires. Though he has addressed the disaster in speeches, he did not speak publicly when the death toll soared over the weekend. The White House said Biden had been in close contact with leaders in the Pacific archipelago and federal emergency officials, who had advised that “search and recovery efforts are expected to be at a stage early next week to allow for a presidential visit.”
The announcement came as the difficult process of identifying the dead inched forwards, with officials saying Tuesday that they had collected DNA samples from 41 people whose relatives were missing. Only five of the dead have been identified so far. The island’s police chief has said that many of the bodies are so badly charred that they are unrecognizable. ‘Shocking to see’ Stories of horrifying escapes continued to emerge, as did more testimony about the lack of official warning of the fast-moving blaze. Annelise Cochran told AFP she had been reassured when officials said a small blaze in the hills had been contained last Tuesday morning. But then it suddenly, and dramatically, flared.
“It was very, very fast; shocking to see,” the 30-year-old said, adding no evacuation order had been issued. After trying to flee by car only to find her way blocked by vehicles abandoned by their terrified drivers, some of which had begun exploding in the heat, she realized the ocean was her only escape option. It was hours before she was plucked from the water. Toxic chemicals Green has warned against any attempt at a land grab in the devastated remains of Lahaina, as locals fret that deep-pocketed developers might take advantage of people’s desperation and try to buy up plots that can be turned into luxury housing or more lucrative short-term rentals.
“Our goal is to have a local commitment — forever — to this community, as we rebuild,” he said. “So, we will be making sure that we do all that we can to prevent that land from falling into the hands of people from the outside.” Meanwhile, residents desperate to get back to check on the homes they fled have expressed frustration at bans that have prevented people from getting into Lahaina. Officials warned of the dangers of unstable buildings and potential airborne toxic chemicals in the area.
Questions are being asked about authorities’ preparedness and response to the catastrophe. Some fire hydrants ran dry in the early stages of the wildfire, and multiple warning systems either failed or were not activated. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Hawaiian Electric, the state’s biggest power firm, claiming the company should have shut off its power lines to lower the risk of fire. – AFP