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Dozens dead in catastrophic natural disaster

BusinessDozens dead in catastrophic natural disaster

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Burnt out cars line the sea wall after the wildfire on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Rick Bowmer | AP

Catastrophic wildfires in Hawaii have left devastation in their wake, killing dozens, leaving thousands homeless and reducing a historic town to ash in what the governor described as the worst natural disaster in state history.

The blaze came suddenly and spread rapidly this week across Maui, the state’s second-largest island, as drought conditions combined with strong winds fanned in part by Hurricane Dora fueled the inferno. 

At least 55 people died in the blaze as of late Thursday local time, according to Maui County officials. The historic city of Lahaina has been reduced to ashes, said Sen. Brian Schatz.

Gov. Josh Green on Thursday gave the public a sobering assessment of the loss left by the fires. He described the scene in Lahaina as “utter devastation” and warned that the blaze is likely the largest natural disaster in state history. 

The loss of Lahaina is a devastating blow to the island’s cultural heritage. The town carries deep historic significance as the former capital of Hawaii when the islands were an independent kingdom in the early 19th century. 

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking. The recovery process will be long, but we’re committed to these families and communities,” Schatz said on social media.

The fire in Lahaina had been 80% contained by Thursday morning, according to Maui County officials. 

It will take many years for Lahaina to recover from the fires, Green said. Many hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of people need shelter, the governor said.

“When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you,” Green said. “All of those buildings are virtually going to need to be rebuilt. It will be a new Lahaina.”

When asked what preparations the state had made for a catastrophic wildfire scenario, Green told the media that global warming has led to extreme weather conditions that are difficult to anticipate. Hawaii is also short on resources such as personnel and helicopters, he said.

“As we rebuild, we will have to take into consideration a lot more fire safety,” Green said. “This is going to be a priority. Climate change is here, and it’s affecting the islands. And I think that’s what we’re seeing now with this fire.”

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Hawaii on Thursday and vowed to provide immediate federal assistance to the victims. Biden directed Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell to streamline requests to get federal aid to survivors without delay.

Criswell will travel to Maui on Friday. The administrator told NPR in an interview that the disaster response will face challenges because the island of Maui is remote and isolated.

Volunteers stack canned goods at War Memorial Stadium in Kahului, Hawaii on August 10, 2023. 

Mengshin Lin | The Washington Post | Getty Images

“We’ll have to really work closely with the governor and his team and be creative in how we’re going to be able to provide the immediate sheltering, which we’re supporting right now, but then the long-term temporary housing that’s going to be needed while they rebuild,” Criswell told NPR.

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Criswell said the disaster declaration allows the federal government to provide reimbursement and cash assistance for people to make home repairs. She said the first step is for people to talk to their insurance company. Criswell said the government will also provide assistance to people who are underinsured or do not have insurance.

“We also understand that people have lost everything,” Criswell told NPR. “So this is designed to jump-start their recovery. But it also brings crisis counseling and disaster unemployment assistance.”

Criswell said the focus right now is on saving lives. FEMA has deployed search and rescue teams to find missing people, the administrator said. The agency is also providing communications equipment because there have been communications outages.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that King Kamehameha I established Lahaina as his royal residence in the early 19th century as he unified the islands into a single state. A previous version misstated the timeline of those events.

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