Ghastly, grim, and overwhelming details about the Lahaina fire on Maui are coming to light even just since we last wrote at 1 am this morning. The totality of the Maui disaster appears incomparably worse than previously revealed.
This is fast becoming what could be the largest natural disaster to ever strike the Hawaiian Islands. It is a lot to digest, and we find ourselves reeling from both the intensity of the news and the scope of the devastation.
Details just coming to light overnight here in Hawaii leave us emotionally exhausted. These include a plethora of new, shocking, and very concerning information not previously known.
“When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you. It does appear like a bomb and fire went off.”Governor Josh Green. 8/10/23.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers: every asset that we have will be available to them.”President Joe Biden. 8/10/23.
Death toll to soar; search and rescue starts with over 1,000 missing.
The death toll on Maui is now expected to rise, perhaps exponentially. The realization came last night that deaths reported thus far were only the most obvious. Search and rescue efforts are only now just beginning. Cadaver dogs are beginning to search in this first death discovery phase. Governor Green said last night that many, if not most, burned buildings have not yet been cleared. He also said about the number of casualties, “Honestly, we don’t know.”
Last night Governor Josh Green, himself an emergency room physician, warned further of what is to come. With residents expected to be able to return to see the results of the fire sometime later today, he warned that “they will see destruction like they’ve not ever seen in their lives.”
The two most critical emergency officials on Maui were both off-island.
It was reported last night that the Maui Fire Department chief and the Maui emergency management administrator were not there on Tuesday as Lahaina burned to the ground. Fire chief Bradford Ventura returned to Maui the day following the disaster. Herman Andaya, whose agency was responsible for evacuation orders, was also reported to be away from Maui and returned subsequently. We aren’t sure how the two most important people can be allowed to be gone simultaneously, but there you have it.
Further, on Thursday, county officials couldn’t or wouldn’t say when or if the evacuation order for Lahaina was issued or how those plans had unfolded two nights earlier when fire swiftly consumed the town, leaving at least 67 people confirmed dead.
Role of Hawaiian Electric power lines in fire and recovery.
The governor pointed out that some 11k people still have no power because twenty-nine power poles (many still active) are on the ground. He said that even more people could be displaced due to electrical issues forthcoming. He and Maui’s mayor Bissen are expected to have significant further announcements today.
Mayor Bissen added that the power poles had not been deactivated during the crisis, which leads to questions about their role in the fire. The second-worst wildfire in California history was sparked by power lines coming in contact with trees. At this time, we don’t know what procedure the utility company may have had in place in this regard, but power should have been cut off, which -per the mayor -did not occur.
Curfew and FEMA coming to Maui.
Governor Green warned yesterday of a likely upcoming curfew, which others on Maui have also confirmed, details of which have not yet been released. In addition, he said that those who have remained in the area will finally be allowed to leave.
FEMA will be on the scene at Lahaina with Hawaii’s governor and other officials Saturday.
World’s most extensive emergency alert system was not activated.
Hawaii has said its public warning system for all emergencies consists of 400 integrated sirens linked across the entire state. Yesterday, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson reported that their records indicate that those sirens were never activated on Maui. Instead, as was confirmed by those there to us directly, the only emergency alerts received were via cell phone alerts through whichever towers were still broadcasting, and what was available on television and radio.
Residents reported no warnings issued and worse.
We reported yesterday that we talked with our friends on Maui who were at home in Lahaina when the fire erupted. They told us, as others have confirmed, that not only were they not told to evacuate, but that police had advised them that they would be safe and did not need to leave.
Subsequently, the winds accelerated to more than 80 miles per hour, and fire rained down on them directly. Our friends could barely escape with their lives as their house was aflame. They took nothing with them. Editor Rob’s cousin in Lahaina also fled, losing her home, work, and belongings.
Lack of firefighters and equipment.
The Hawaii Firefighters Association said yesterday that fire suppression didn’t happen due to a lack of personnel. There were only 65 firefighters across the three islands in Maui County, and the firefighter association indicated that crews could not address fires until they approached populated areas. Association president Bob Lee said, “You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch.” Lee further said, “You’ve got to be careful—you don’t want to get caught downwind from that because you’re going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude.”
Maui has known of this catastrophic potential for a decade.
Studies from as far back as 2014 pointed to the possibility of such an extensive fire without measures to prevent it. While the Lahaina area has remained one of extreme risk, drought conditions have worsened since then as population density has simultaneously increased. The perfect storm was created with the introduction of the hurricane-driven winds that struck earlier in the week.
Elimination of agricultural crops and fire proclivity.
The West Maui landscape was previously dominated by agriculture, including sugar and pineapple. With those gone, there is little replacement. Most of the former land used for crops has become dry guinea grass, which is the perfect fuel for wildfires after being entirely dried out by the blazing Lahaina sun and fierce dry winds.
The burden on the State of Hawaii is to change or be further decimated.
Hawaii may be able to make changes that could reverse these tendencies towards extreme wildfires. But given that it has known about this situation for a decade and has done virtually nothing about it, will that even happen? It isn’t just Maui; the entire island chain could be at risk of a similar disaster. Alternatives to complacency and destruction may include the maintenance of appropriate firebreaks, the rebuilding of native forests, and allowing grazing of grasses to reduce the “fuel load” currently present.
FEMA arrives on Maui to face the unknown.
Fema is sending search and rescue teams to account for all those still missing. Regarding other immediate needs, they are also providing communications equipment to resolve mass outages. They are setting up a distribution center on Maui which will provide food, water, and cots for those needing shelter. FEMA will remain on the scene for an undefined timeframe to support the ongoing recovery needs.