The death toll from the devastating Hawaii wildfire has reached 80 with nearly 1,000 still missing amid growing criticism against lack of government response in the US island state prior to and in the aftermath of the tragedy in the Maui County.
“The number of fatalities is at 80,” the county said in a regular update on Friday, adding that 1,418 people were at emergency evacuation shelters as strong public anger and criticism about lack of official response prompted Hawaii’s chief legal officer to launch a probe into handling of the disaster that left the county’s historic resort town of Lahaina in near complete ruins.
The announcement came as residents of the town were allowed back into their neighborhoods for the first time — with most finding their homes had been reduced to ashes and quite angry at a sense of abandonment by the government.
“Everything has been coconut wire,” said a resident as quoted in an AFP report, referring to a system of rumors, adding: “One person heard, then told another, but it’s not official information. They don’t come here and explain anything.”
“Where is the government? Where are they?” said another raging resident who felt like he had been left to fend for himself. “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, meanwhile, declared that her office would be examining “critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawai’i islands this week.”
Even those few whose homes still appeared habitable, however, were warned that 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,” Maui’s water department declared.
“As a precaution…(we) are advising residents to not use the tap water for drinking and cooking until further notice,” it added.
Firefighters were continuing to extinguish flare-ups and contain wildfires in Lahaina, with spot blazes still reported in the town, but 85 percent contained, according to the county, which noted that two other wildfires on the island were 80 percent and 50 percent contained.
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.
Officials have warned that search teams with cadaver dogs could still find more dead from the fire that torched 1,000 buildings and left thousands homeless, likely requiring many years and billions of dollars to rebuild.
Local officials have not offered a detailed picture of precisely what notifications were sent out, and whether they were done via text message, email or phone calls.
Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc.
Visitors to Maui were asked by Maui officials to leave the island “as soon as possible.”
However, many travelers were stranded at the Kahului Airport, the primary airport in Maui due to canceled and delayed flights, with some seen sleeping on the floor.