Lahaina, United States:
The death count from a horrific wildfire in Hawaii climbed to 80 as residents confronted the devastation and criticisms grew Saturday over the emergency response.
Over 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed in the fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said, estimating that it would cost some $5.5 billion to rebuild affected communities.
Hawaiian authorities said they were opening a probe into the handling of the fire as a congresswoman from the state acknowledged that officials had underestimated the dangers.
In the historic resort city of Lahaina on the island of Maui, resident Anthony Garcia said the fire had gutted the apartment he was renting and destroyed all his belongings and memories.
“It took everything, everything! It’s heartbreaking,” the 80-year-old California native, who has lived in Lahaina for three decades, told AFP. “It’s a lot to take in.”
The town of some 13,000, once the proud home of the Hawaiian royal family, has been reduced to ruins, its lively hotels and restaurants turned to ashes.
A majestic banyan tree that has been the center of the community for 150 years has been scarred by the flames but still stands upright, its branches denuded of green and its sooty trunk transformed into an awkward skeleton.
‘Underestimated the lethality’
Hawaii’s Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office would examine “critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawaii islands this week.”
Late Friday, Maui County officials revised the death count to 80 and Governor Josh Green warned that the number of fatalities was sure to rise further. Over 1,400 people were in emergency evacuation shelters.
“We underestimated the lethality, the quickness of fire,” Hawaii Congresswoman Jill Tokuda told CNN on Saturday morning.
Jeremy Greenberg, FEMA’s director of operations and for years a volunteer fireman himself, said the recent blaze was of a type “extraordinarily difficult” to control.
“We talk about these types of fires moving as quickly as the length of a football field in 20 seconds or less,” he said on MSNBC.
Maui suffered numerous power outages during the crisis, preventing many residents from receiving emergency alerts on their cellphones — something, Tokuda said, officials should have prepared for.
“We have got to make sure that we do better,” she added.
Greenberg said FEMA and its allied agencies were “bringing every resource that the state of Hawaii needs,” including water for areas where the public sources are contaminated.
He said FEMA, which has a permanent distribution center in Hawaii, was sending more than 150 employees to the affected area.
The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with record-breaking wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heat wave baking the US southwest.
Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc. Scientists have said global warming caused by carbon emissions is contributing to extreme weather.
For some of those who made it back into Lahaina, there was a momentary sense of elation when they tearfully reconnected with neighbors they feared might not have gotten out alive.
“You made it!” cried Chyna Cho, as she embraced Amber Langdon amid the ruins. “I was trying to find you.”
Fears of looting were also on residents’ minds, and county authorities said anyone accessing Lahaina would have to prove they lived or were staying at a hotel there, and that a curfew would be in place between 10 pm and 6 am.
Some of those who made it back to Lahaina wandered in stunned silence trying to take in the enormity of the destruction.
Anthony La Puente, 44, said the shock of finding his home burned to nothing was profound.
“It sucks not being able to find the things you grew up with or the things you remember,” he told AFP of the house he had lived in for 16 years.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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