LAHAINA, Hawaii (NEXSTAR) — Public schools on Maui started the process of reopening and traffic resumed on a major road in signs of recovery a week after wildfires demolished a historic town and killed at least 111 people, while the head of the island’s emergency agency said he had “no regret” that sirens weren’t sounded to warn people about the onrushing flames.
At least three schools untouched by flames in Lahaina, where entire neighborhoods were reduced to ash, were still being assessed after sustaining wind damage, Hawaii Department of Education superintendent Keith Hayashi said.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, but overall the campuses and classrooms are in good condition structurally, which is encouraging,” Hayashi said in a video update. “We know the recovery effort is still in the early stages, and we continue to grieve the many lives lost.”
Maui County confirmed the death toll increased to 111. The county also released the names of three more individuals whose lives were claimed by the fire in Lahaina. A total of five identities have been confirmed since Tuesday, Aug. 15.
Elsewhere, crews cleaned up ash and debris at schools and tested air and water quality. Displaced students who enroll at those campuses can access services such as meals and counseling, Hayashi said. The education department is also offering counseling for students, family members and staff.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened its first disaster recovery center on Maui, “an important first step” toward helping residents get information about assistance, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said. They also can go there for updates on aid applications.
Criswell said she would accompany President Joe Biden on Monday when he visits to survey the damage and “bring hope.”
At a news conference, Herman Andaya, Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator, defended not sounding the sirens during the fire. “We were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” he said, using the Hawaiian directional term that can mean toward the mountains or inland. “If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”
There are no sirens in the mountains, where the fire was spreading downhill.
Maui County provided an update on the ongoing firefighting efforts in the following areas:
- Lahaina fire: 89% contained. Estimated 2,170 acres burned.
- Olinda fire: 85% contained. Estimated 1,081 acres burned.
- Kula fire: 80% contained. Estimated 202 acres burned.
- Pulehu / Kihei fire: Remains 100% contained.
Initially, the blazes in Olinda and Kula were identified together as the Upcountry fire however county fire investigators concluded the two have distinct origins.
Hawaii created what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150. Andaya said they are primarily meant to warn about tsunamis and have never been used for wildfires. The website for the Maui siren system says they may be used to alert for fires.
Beyond the decision to not use sirens, state and local officials have faced public criticism over shortages of available water to fight the fire and a chaotic evacuation that saw many trapped in their vehicles on a jammed roadway as flames swept over them.
Avery Dagupion, whose family’s home was destroyed, is angry that residents weren’t given earlier warning to get out and that officials prematurely suggested danger had passed.
He pointed to an announcement by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen on Aug. 8 saying the fire had been contained, “instilling a false hope in residents of Lahaina,” when hours later the fire exploded. That, he said, lulled people into a sense of safety and adds to the mistrust that he and others have over officials’ efforts now.
At the news conference, Gov. Josh Green and Bissen bristled when asked about that mistrust and how they can assure the public they will do all that’s needed to help the community rebuild.
“Did mistakes happen? Absolutely,” the governor said, later adding: “You can look here to see who you can trust,” referring to the police, fire, emergency and Red Cross officials standing behind him.
“I can’t answer why people don’t trust people,” Bissen said. “The people who were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes — 25 of our firefighters lost their homes. You think they were doing a halfway job?”
With the death toll rising by four since Tuesday, a mobile morgue unit with additional coroners has been brought in to help.
Kimberly Buen was awaiting word Wednesday of her father, Maurice “Shadow” Buen, a retired sport fisherman who lived in an assisted-living facility that was destroyed.
The 79-year-old was blind in one eye, partially blind in the other and used a walker or an electric scooter to get around. In recent weeks, he also had swollen feet.
“For him, there is no moving quickly,” Buen said. The stories from survivors who fled the fast-moving flames terrified her.
“If able-bodied people were having to run and jump into the ocean, I can only imagine what’s happened to the assisted living and the lower income and the elderly people that didn’t have warning, you know, or have any resources to get out,” she said.
Bill Seidl, 75, lived in the same complex. His daughter, Cassie Seidl, of Valencia, California, said he knocked on doors before escaping.
“I think people were assuming it was just another brushfire,” she said. “I don’t think people realized, and they were not warned.”
Seidl’s father is now camping on a friend’s property in Wailuku.
On Tuesday, the county released the names of two victims: Lahaina residents Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79. They were the first of five who have been identified.
Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina was destroyed, and Principal Tonata Lolesio said lessons would resume in the coming weeks at another Catholic school. She said it was important for students to be with their friends, teachers and books, and not constantly thinking about the tragedy.
“I’m hoping to at least try to get some normalcy or get them in a room where they can continue to learn or just be in another environment where they can take their minds off of that,” she said.
The main building of the Children of the Rainbow Preschool in the center of Lahaina was also completely destroyed, director and lead teacher Noelle Kamaunu said via email Wednesday, adding that she’s thankful she closed the school the morning of the fire because the power was out. The staff is safe, and families have been accounted for.
“We are not allowed into the area so I am unable to even see it with my own eyes. Children of the Rainbow Preschool is in my heart, my second home,” said Kamaunu, who has worked there for 20 years. “It is a tragic loss.”
The governor said Wednesday that he instructed the state’s attorney general to institute a moratorium on land transactions in the Lahaina area. Green said he has heard of people he described as not even in real estate reaching out to ask about purchasing land owned by people in the disaster area.
“My intention from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimized from a land grab,” he said.
The cause of the wildfires, already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, is under investigation. Hawaii is increasingly at risk from disasters, and wildfire is what is escalating the most, according to an AP analysis of FEMA records.
Green has warned that scores more bodies could be found.
John Allen and his daughter surveyed an ash-gray landscape once festooned with colorful orchids and plumerias from a hill above the fire zone. His daughter wept as she pointed to the coffee shop where she used to work, and the places they used to live.
Allen moved to Maui two years ago after leaving Oakland, California, where he witnessed a destructive wildfire race up hillsides in 1991.
“No one realizes how quickly fires move,” Allen said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.