Lahaina wildfire: Death toll and missing persons remain uncertain

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Hawaii authorities wrap up search and recovery mission

Hawaii authorities have announced that they have almost completed the search and recovery mission for the victims of the Lahaina wildfire, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. The fire, which broke out on August 8, 2023, devastated Maui’s historic seaside community of Lahaina, killing at least 115 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes and businesses.

However, the exact number of fatalities and missing persons remains unclear, as some people may have fled the area without notifying authorities or relatives. Maui County officials released a list of 388 people who were unaccounted for on August 24, but more than 100 of them came forward to say they were safe within a day. The FBI, which is leading the investigation, said the number of people still missing could be between 1,000 and 1,100.

Officials said they have identified and notified the loved ones of 45 of those killed, and collected DNA samples from 120 people to identify the rest of the remains. They also said they have searched 100% of the land area affected by the fire, as well as a four-mile stretch of coastline, but found no human remains in the ocean.

President Biden visits Maui to survey the damage and offer support

President Biden visited Maui on August 21, 2023, to survey the damage caused by the wildfire and offer his support to the survivors and first responders. He met with state and local officials, including Governor David Ige and Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, and pledged federal assistance to help rebuild the community.

Lahaina wildfire

Biden also spoke with some of the residents who lost their homes and belongings in the fire, and expressed his condolences and admiration for their resilience. He said he was “heartbroken” by the tragedy and vowed to “do everything in our power to protect our communities from these kinds of disasters.”

The president’s visit came after he faced criticism for his initial response to the fire, which some deemed slow and inadequate. He declared a major disaster in Hawaii on August 15, a week after the fire started, and authorized federal funding for emergency relief and recovery efforts. Some critics said he should have done so sooner, and accused him of being distracted by other issues such as Afghanistan and COVID-19.

Environmental and health hazards pose challenges for recovery

As authorities shift their focus from search and recovery to hazardous waste removal and restoration, they face several environmental and health challenges posed by the fire. The fire burned through industrial items, buildings, cars, and other materials that can release toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water. According to the state’s Department of Health, “toxic contaminants present in debris and ash” remain a top hazard concern in Lahaina, as do other heavy metals and chemicals such as asbestos.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is leading the cleanup effort, which involves collecting and disposing of hazardous waste such as batteries, propane tanks, pesticides, paints, solvents, and asbestos-containing materials. The EPA said it has already removed more than 300 tons of hazardous waste from Lahaina, and expects to complete the work by mid-September.

The EPA also said it is monitoring the air quality in Lahaina and surrounding areas, and providing respirators and other protective equipment to workers and residents. The agency advised people to avoid exposure to smoke and ash, which can cause respiratory problems, eye irritation, headaches, and other health issues. It also recommended people to wash their hands frequently, wear gloves when handling debris or ash, and avoid drinking or using water from wells or streams that may be contaminated.

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