Friday, July 12, 2024

Death toll hits 80 as Hawaii starts probe into wildfire handling

Death toll hits 80 as Hawaii starts probe into wildfire handling
August 12, 2023 Web Desk

LAHAINA, United States (AFP) - Hawaii's chief legal officer said Friday she was opening a probe into the handling of devastating wildfires that killed at least 80 people in the state this week, as criticism grows of the official response.

The announcement and increased death toll came as residents of Lahaina were allowed back into the town for the first time -- with most finding their homes reduced to ashes, and even the lucky few angry at a sense of abandonment. "Where is the government? Where are they?" said a man who did not want to be named.

"This is insane. We can't move freely, we don't get the support, now we've heard about looting." Hawaii's Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office would examine "critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawai'i islands this week."

She added that her department would make the findings public. Late Friday, Maui County officials revised the  death toll to 80, adding that 1,418 people were in emergency evacuation shelters. The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with record-breaking wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heat wave baking the US southwest.

Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc. Scientists have said global warming caused by carbon emissions is contributing to the extreme weather.

Reunion 

For some of those who made it back into Lahaina, there was elation as they tearfully reconnected with neighbors they feared might not have gotten out alive. "You made it!" cried Chyna Cho, as she embraced Amber Langdon amid the ruins. "I was trying to find you."

For some of the luckiest, there was joy -- albeit tempered by the scale of the tragedy that counts among the worst natural disasters to hit the state of Hawaii. "I just couldn't believe it," Keith Todd told AFP after finding his home intact. I'm so grateful, but at the same time it's so devastating."

Todd, 64, discovered his house and his neighbor's house untouched, and his solar panels providing electricity to the fridge, which was still dispensing ice on demand. But even those few whose homes still appeared habitable were being warned they might not be safe.

"Some structures in the Lahaina water system were destroyed by the fire... These conditions may have caused harmful contaminants, including benzene and other volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), to enter the water system," said Maui's water department. "As a precaution...(we) are advising residents to not use the tap water for drinking and cooking until further notice."

Fears of looting were also on residents' minds. "I heard people were looting the houses as the fire was coming down the hill. What you can think of that? Holy Christ," said Todd. "I will stay here, now that I know my house and my things are here. I will sleep here just in case someone tries to come in."

County authorities said anyone accessing Lahaina would have to prove they lived or were staying at a hotel there, and that a curfew would be in place between 10 pm and 6 am. "The curfew is intended to protect residences and property," it said in a statement.

'It hurts' 

Some of those who made it back to Lahaina wandered in stunned silence trying to take in the enormity of the destruction. Anthony La Puente said the shock of finding his home burned to nothing was profound. "It sucks not being able to find the things you grew up with, or the things you remember," he told AFP of the house he had lived in for 16 years.

"The only thing I can say is that it hurts," the 44-year-old said. La Puente dug through the still-warm ashes of his home, picking out a Starbucks tumbler that had survived, but despairing at the loss of irreplaceable things, like mementoes of his late father.

Cadaver dogs 

The number of people killed has surpassed the count from when a tsunami struck the Big Island in 1960. "Without a doubt, there will be more fatalities. We don't know ultimately how many will have occurred," Governor Josh Green said. Crews from Honolulu arrived on Maui along with search and rescue teams from the US mainland equipped with five K-9 cadaver dogs, Maui County said.

Firefighters were continuing to extinguish flare-ups and contain wildfires in Lahaina, with spot blazes evident to the AFP team in the town. Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said Thursday that as many as 1,000 people could be unaccounted for, though he stressed that this did not mean they were missing or dead.