Things to know about aid, lawsuits and tourism nearly a month after fire leveled a Hawaii community
Sep 5, 2023, 10:09 PM
HONOLULU (AP) — Nearly a month after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century killed at least 115 people, authorities on Maui are working their way through a list of the missing that has grown almost as quickly as names have been removed.
Lawsuits are piling up in court over liability for the inferno, and businesses across the island are fretting about the loss of tourism.
Government officials from Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen to President Joe Biden have pledged support, and thousands of people have been put up in hotels and elsewhere as they await clearance to visit and inspect the properties where they once lived.
Here’s a look at things to know about how the recovery in Lahaina is taking shape following the Aug. 8 disaster:
HOW MANY PEOPLE DIED?
The official confirmed count stands at 115, a figure that has not changed since Aug. 21. But many more names remain on a list of people who are considered unaccounted-for, and it is unclear whether the toll of the deceased will rise — or whether we will ever truly know how many perished.
Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier has repeatedly pleaded for patience as authorities try to verify who is missing, who has been accounted for and who has died.
Officials have also sometimes clouded the situation. Police on Aug. 24 released a “credible” list compiled by the FBI of 388 who had not been accounted for, people for whom authorities had a first and last name and a contact number for whoever reported them missing.
Many of them, or their relatives, came forward to say they were safe, resulting in the removal of 245 names last Friday. Some others are known to have died in the fire, but their remains have not yet been identified.
Gov. Josh Green said the number of missing would drop to double digits with Friday’s update, but when police released it, there were 263 newly added names for a new total of 385.
Over the weekend Green posted a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, seeking to clarify, saying, “The official number has been 385 … but there are only 41 — 41 active investigations after people filed missing persons reports.”
Official investigations will aim to determine the cause of the fire and review how officials handled it. But about a dozen lawsuits have already been filed blaming Hawaii Electric Company, the for-profit, investor-owned utility that serves 95% of the state’s electric customers.
Among the lawsuits is one by Maui County accusing the utility of negligently failing to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.
Hawaii Electric has said in a statement that it is “very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding.”
Other lawsuits have come from residents who lost their homes. On Monday the father of a 57-year-old woman who died while trying to escape the fire filed suit against defendants including Maui County, the state and Hawaiian Electric.
Representatives for the county didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on that complaint. The state said it was reviewing it, and Hawaiian Electric declined to comment.
A law firm that filed a proposed class action against Hawaiian Electric and Maui County asked a court Tuesday to add multiple telecommunications companies and private and state landowners to the original lawsuit.
Lawyers representing Lahaina residents and business owners claim that cable TV and phone companies overloaded and destabilized some utility poles which snapped in high winds, helping cause the fire.
HOW IS THE GOVERNMENT HELPING PEOPLE?
Much of the immediate disaster relief aid has been organized by community members, such as a supply distribution center operating out of a Hawaiian homestead community in Lahaina where most of the homes survived.
Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said during remarks Tuesday on the Senate floor that federal support must continue.
“It’s our responsibility here in Congress to provide relief — in any way that we can, for as long as people need it,” he said.
As of Monday night, 5,852 people were staying at 24 hotels around Maui serving as temporary shelters, according to the county.
At the hotels, they’re receiving American Red Cross services including meals, mental health support and financial assistance.
More than 1,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel have been on Maui helping survivors, Schatz said.
FEMA will also need to complete “one of the most complex debris removal operations in its history,” he said, which may take as long as a year and cost up to a billion dollars.
Gov. Green said in a video on social media Monday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cleared more than 200 parcels.
“This is important because we can start getting people back to inspect their own land and get some closure soon,” he said.
FEMA has given up to $19.4 million of assistance, Green said.
Help is also coming from the rich and famous: Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson have committed $10 million to make direct payments to people on Maui who are unable to return to their homes through a new fund they announced last week.
SHOULD TOURISTS VISIT MAUI?
Officials said last week that the visitor traffic to the island has dropped 70% since Aug. 9, the day after Lahaina burned. Maui relies heavily on tourism for jobs, and the economy is reeling.
Lahaina’s restaurants and historic sites, once popular tourist draws, are now charred ruins. Large resort hotels farther up the west coast of Maui were spared but are now housing displaced residents.
Authorities are encouraging travelers to visit the island and support the economy, but ask that they avoid west Maui and instead stay in other areas like Kihei and Wailea.
Celebrities like Native Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa and Aerosmith singer and Maui homeowner Steven Tyler are also among those urging people to visit.
“Everything’s beautiful, except we gotta come there and make it more beautiful, OK?” Tyler said during a weekend concert in Philadelphia.
Johnson reported from Seattle.