As the residents of Maui begin to pick up the pieces of their lives, they face an equally daunting task: locating the hundreds of people displaced by the blaze.
LAHAINA, Hawaii — Two weeks after the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century swept through the community of Lahaina in Maui, authorities say more than 800 people are still missing — a staggering number The big challenge for officials is trying to determine how many of those people were killed and how many may have arrived safely but have not yet registered.
The same thing happened after the 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California. Authorities in Butte County, Paradise’s hometown, finally published a list of the missing in the local newspaper, a decision that has helped define many people The survivors escaped but were listed as missing. Within a month, the list was reduced from 1,300 names to only a dozen.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said in a phone interview: “Probably at any given time, I have between 10 and 15 detectives who are not tasked with anything but trying to find people. Missing person. “There was a time when the local editor of our newspaper … said, ‘Hey, if you tell me the names, I’ll print them.’ And at that point, it was like, ‘Sure. Anything we can do to help.”
But Maui authorities have decided not to make their list public because it’s unclear whether privacy regulations would prevent them from doing so, said Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. know. He added there are also concerns about further harming the families of those currently listed as missing but possibly dead.
As of Monday, 115 people have been confirmed dead, according to Maui police.
“The names and any information regarding the missing persons will not be released or made public at this time,” a Maui County spokesperson said via text message.
There are also various accounts of the number of people missing. Hawaii Governor Josh Green said Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that more than 1,000 people remain unresolved. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a pre-recorded Instagram video that the number was 850. And in the meantime President Joe Biden’s Devastating Tour on Monday, White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall put the number between 500 and 800.
Spokesman Daniel Parra said the American Red Cross said it created its own list – separate from law enforcement – of missing people through requests made to the call center and information. information gathered by their field teams. The organization has also entered into a data-sharing agreement with federal, state, and local government agencies to support reunification.
Parra said the American Red Cross has successfully completed about 2,400 requests for updates on unity or welfare to date, out of more than 3,000 requests it has received. A completed request means that an organization can locate a missing person or verify someone’s condition at a medical facility, among other things.
To find people, Parra said, the organization cross-checks names with emergency shelter registries, calls hospitals to see if the person is admitted as a patient, and searches through social media, among other steps, Parra said. Once an individual is identified, the organization provides their status to the person seeking information about them — with the individual’s consent — and closes the case in the organization’s systems.
Social outreach like this will be important because identifying human remains after wildfires – and confirming if those missing are dead – can be a long and arduous process. . Fire experts say it is possible that some of the bodies were cremated in the Lahaina fire, meaning there may be no bones left to identify through DNA testing.
“Things are easy when the destructive power is modest,” said Vyto Babrauskas, president of fire safety research consultancy Fire Science and Technology Inc.. “If you go to the extreme – if you turn to ashes – you won’t be able to identify anything.”
Babrauskas added that damage from debris removal and excavation could also complicate recovery efforts.
“This is a terrible disaster,” he said. “It is very rare that this kind of tally and identification is needed.”
Honea, the Butte County sheriff, said it took weeks to complete the search for the remains in Paradise and that his detectives worked 16 hours a day to narrow down the list of missing people. Only one person is still missing and Honea says he has reason to believe that person was not in town on the day of the fire.
“We have this Excel spreadsheet with everyone’s names and any other information we have,” he said. “We’ll then start solving cases similar to how you would solve any other case to try to locate someone.”
That includes visiting people’s last known whereabouts, contacting telcos to see if they have cell phones, and contacting via email and social media.
“We were able to identify them through good old-fashioned detective work,” Honea said.
Diving instructor Tim Ferguson, whose home north of Lahaina is safe, was delighted to learn of a friend who managed to flee the flames with their family, including a 2-week-old baby, a 3-year-old and their two dogs. . They lost their home but were still safe.
He thinks it would be better for the authorities to release the list of missing people the way Paradise did, but says that list may be restricted for now because mobile service is still vulnerable in Lahaina. Everyone uses their mobile phones to communicate, he said.
“There are a lot of people who won’t have that end. I don’t know how we can get through that,” Ferguson said.
The situation in Maui is still evolving rapidly, but those who have experienced similar tragedies and have never known the fate of their loved ones are also following the news and hurting the victims and their families. .
Nearly 22 years later, nearly 1,100 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, have yet to be identified.
Joseph Giaccone’s family was initially keen to find any physical traces of the 43-year-old chief financial officer, who works at the North Tower of the World Trade Center, his brother James Giaccone recalls. But over time, he began to focus on his brother’s flourishing manly memories instead.
If his remains are identified and given to his family now, “it will only reinforce the horror his body endured that day, and it will leave wounds that I don’t think I want to open it,” Giaccone said Monday as he visited the home. 9/11 Memorial Square in New York.
“So I’m fine with the current situation.”
Rush reports from Portland, Oregon and Kelleher reports from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York and Janie Har in San Francisco contributed.