Things to know about aid, lawsuits and tourism nearly a month after fire leveled a Hawaii community
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.
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 it will ever be known 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 missing 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 on Friday. Some others are known to have died in the fire, but their remains have not yet been identified.
Gov. Josh Green had 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.”
Formal 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 Rebecca Rans, a 57-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis who died while trying to escape the fire, sued Maui County, the state, Hawaiian Electric and the state’s largest landowner, Kamehameha Schools, a charitable trust formerly known as the Bishop Estate.
The lawsuit alleges that the county and the Bishop Estate failed to maintain their land by mowing or otherwise removing the dry, invasive grasses that have taken over former sugar and pineapple plantations in the region and which helped fuel the fires on Aug. 8.
“All the landowners knew how dangerous it was to have that huge volume of dry grass next to subdivisions, and could have saved hundreds of lives at a cost of less than $1,000 per acre to cut the brush down,” attorney James Bickerton said in a news release.
The Associated Press sent an email seeking comment to the county. The Department of the Attorney General said in a written statement that the state is reviewing the lawsuit, and Hawaiian Electric declined to comment in an email sent by spokesperson Darren Pai.
“Our hearts are with all affected by the Maui fires,” Kamehameha Schools said in a written statement. “We are committed to restoring our Native Hawaiian people and culture through education, which includes stewarding and uplifting the health and resiliency of our ’āina (lands) and Native communities. As many aspects of the fires are still under investigation, we have no further comment at this time.”
In another case, 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 serving as temporary shelters around Maui, 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 announced the creation of a $10 million fund to make direct payments to people on Maui who are unable to return to their homes.
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 including 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.