HONOLULU — One month after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century leveled the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said Friday that the number of missing had dropped to 66, the confirmed death toll remained at 115 and authorities would soon escort residents on visits to their property.
Tens of millions of dollars in aid will make its way to families and businesses as they recover, Green said, and beginning October 8, travel restrictions will end and West Maui will reopen to visitors.
“If we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to afford to live on Maui,” Green said.
Donations from around the world have poured into the American Red Cross, the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Maui United Way and other organizations, Green said, and he has authorized $100 million from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program “to support what others donate, magnifying the power of their generosity.”
The government is also making $25 million available to help businesses survive, distributed in grants of $10,000 to $20,000, he said.
Fewer missing than feared earlier
The August 8 fire started in the hills above the historic oceanfront town. Within hours it spread through single-family homes and apartment buildings, quaint city streets, art galleries and restaurants, destroying more than 2,000 structures. Dozens of people fled to the ocean seeking refuge from the flames. The blaze is estimated to have caused $5.5 billion in damage.
The new tally of 66 people still missing represents a significant drop from a week earlier, when authorities said 385 remained unaccounted for.
So far, Maui police have released the names of 55 of the dead. Of those, 22 were in their 70s, with another 13 in their 60s. There was one listed victim under age 10.
With about half the deceased still unidentified, Green said he expected there to be significant overlap between the names on the missing list and remains that have already been recovered. Therefore, he said, he did not expect the death toll to rise considerably.
“We’re starting to see that the universe of 115 fatalities is about where we are,” Green said. “There may be some additional fatalities as we go through the next month.”
Residents can visit homes soon
The Maui Police Department said Friday that in addition to the 66 people listed by the FBI as unaccounted for, there were 80 additional names of potentially missing people that the agency was vetting for credibility. In those cases, no information was provided for the reporting party, or the reporting party was not available to provide further details.
The governor said that in the coming weeks, authorities would begin to schedule supervised visits for residents to return to and view their properties. People will have to be careful as they visit, he said, because the ash is toxic.
Green and Maui County officials have come under criticism for allegedly not being ready for the wildfire and for what some have called a chaotic and disorganized response. The danger of wildfires wasn’t top of mind on the islands, Green said, when pressed about whether Hawaii should have been more prepared.
“Should we have invested more in fire prevention? Of course, of course. But we’d never had a fire of this consequence,” Green said. Instead, he said, people have been more focused on more commonly occurring tragedies such as car accidents or drug overdoses.
The governor suggested lawsuits filed against various state and county entities have prevented those in positions of authority from speaking out more.
“I can’t speak to when people will apologize for this tragedy. I’m heartbroken, and I will tell you and anyone out there, ‘I’m so sorry you went through this.’ Of course, I’m just one person,” he said. “It’s the world who has to apologize for what we have become, where we have become a world where we turn our backs on global warming and where we didn’t prioritize things in advance.”
Green said he aimed to set up a victim assistance fund within two to three weeks in the mold of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, and people who file claims should be able to get compensated in six to nine months. He did not specify which entities would contribute to the fund but said those who were currently parties to lawsuits would likely participate.