The Lahaina wildfire death toll has risen to 80, positioning the natural disaster as the most uncompromising in U.S. history.
Once teeming with culture and history, Lahaina now lies in ruins. The rapidly spreading flames, ignited a few days ago, reduced homes, landmarks, and natural treasures to ashes.
Lahaina residents were granted access to assess the fire’s impact on their properties. The state-sanctioned access is granted only to those who could provide proof of residency, a measure to ensure the safety and security of the affected area.
Currently, six shelters are operational on Maui Island to accommodate the displaced population. Plans are also developed to house these individuals in hotels and vacation rentals to provide more suitable and sustainable living conditions.
Despite the access to assess the damage, many evacuees currently taking refuge at the War Memorial Stadium shelter exhibit reluctance to go home immediately. The reluctance stems from the experiences they had while fleeing their homes, watching flames engulf the properties.
In the meantime, the returnees are advised about the emotionally impactful scenes that await them.
For the evacuees who fled the advancing flames with little more than the clothes on their backs, gathering the necessary documentation to prove residency is a challenge almost impossible. The process has been further complicated by the absence of power and water services in West Maui.
Authorities have imposed a daily curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time.
The search effort for wildfire victims has expanded to include water areas. The Coast Guard rescued 17 individuals from near the town harbour, all reported to be in stable health. Rescue operations involved surfboards to retrieve individuals, including children.
The quick-spreading flames forced many residents and visitors to seek refuge at the water’s edge.
Reports also emerged of casualties found on rocks.
The Honoapiilani Highway, a primary route to Lahaina, is congested with cars, families, and trucks transporting essential supplies. Some families chose to stay in Lahaina throughout the fire leaving only to gather supplies. Although their house remains intact, they have been experiencing a power outage.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green described the area as an unparalleled devastation. He underlined the immense time and effort required to repair the catastrophic damage inflicted by the wildfires on Maui Island.
Donations pour into relief and aid organisations on Maui. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his partner Lauren Sanchez made a commitment by pledging US$100 million in aid.
Lahaina derives its etymological name, cruel sun, from the Hawaiian language, reflecting its scorching and arid climate. With a history predating the arrival of Europeans in Hawaii in 1778, Lahaina stands as a treasure trove of heritage and narratives that precede Western influence.
The fires consumed the Baldwin Home Museum, the oldest dwelling on Maui. A cherished banyan tree was scorched, yet it endured. The fires also destroyed the Waiola Church, recognised as Maui’s inaugural Christian church, as well as the 90-year-old Hongwanji Shin Buddhist temple.
Central to the Lahaina attraction is the iconic banyan tree. With a height of 60 feet and 46 trunks, the tree covers an expanse of 1.94 acres, akin to the size of a city block. Planted in 1873 at the location of Kamehameha the Great’s initial palace, the banyan tree commemorated 50 years of Lahaina’s Protestant mission.
Just this April, the banyan tree celebrated its 150th birthday. Now, the wildfires question its survival. If the roots remain healthy regrowth is likely, according to the town website. Urban forestry experts opine that banyan trees are resilient and difficult to eliminate.
Questions surrounding the effectiveness of Hawaii’s emergency warning system are also at the forefront. Residents struggle to understand why the system didn’t notify them about the approaching fires, leaving them with minimal preparation time to evacuate.
Records from Hawaii’s emergency management amplify the concerns about the warning system’s effectiveness. No activation of warning sirens was indicated before the fires took hold.
Hawaii is equipped with an integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system, often considered the largest of its kind. With approximately 400 strategically placed sirens scattered throughout the Hawaiian Islands, the system’s purpose is to alert residents about a range of natural disasters and potential threats.
Many who escaped the fires unscathed reported not hearing any sirens. The escapees felt the flames’ imminent danger and naturally chose to evacuate on foot.
Meanwhile, Governor Green points out that it is premature to determine whether the siren system has experienced a failure.
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