HONOLULU — One month after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century leveled the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Friday that the number of missing has dropped to 66, the confirmed death toll remains at 115 and authorities will soon escort residents on visits to their property.
Tens of millions of dollars in aid will make its way to families and businesses as they recover, Green said, and beginning Oct. 8, travel restrictions will end and West Maui will reopen to visitors.
“If we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to afford to live on Maui,” Green said.
Donations from around the world have poured in to the American Red Cross, the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Maui United Way and other organizations, Green said, and he has authorized $100 million from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program “to support what others donate, magnifying the power of their generosity.”
The government is also making $25 million available to help businesses survive, distributed in grants of $10,000 to $20,000, he said.
The Aug. 8 fire started in the hills above the historic oceanfront town. Within hours it spread through single-family homes and apartment buildings, quaint city streets, art galleries and restaurants, destroying more than 2,000 structures. Dozens of people fled to the ocean seeking refuge from the flames. The blaze is estimated to have caused $5.5 billion in damage.
The new tally of 66 people still missing represents a significant drop from a week earlier, when authorities said 385 remained unaccounted for.
So far, Maui police have released the names of 55 of the dead. Of those, 22 were in their 70s, with another 13 in their 60s. There was one listed victim under the age of 10.
With about half the deceased still unidentified, Green said he expected there to be significant overlap between the names on the missing list and remains that have already been recovered. Therefore, he said, he did not expect the death toll to rise considerably.
“We're starting to see that the universe of 115 fatalities is about where we are,” Green said. “There may be some additional fatalities as we go through the next month.”
The Maui Police Department said Friday that in addition to the 66 people listed by the FBI as unaccounted for, there are 80 additional names of potentially missing people that the agency is vetting for credibility. In those cases, no information was provided for the reporting party or the reporting party was not available to provide further details.
The governor said that in the coming weeks, authorities will begin to schedule supervised visits for residents to return to and view their properties. People will have to be careful as they visit, he said, because the ash is toxic.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said she would use her subpoena powers, if necessary, to compel cooperation from state and county employees as her office probes the wildfire and will get answers so there are “guardrails in place for the future so it doesn’t happen again.”
Green said some state employees have been asked to go to Washington, D.C., to testify at congressional hearings on the wildfire, including Hawaii’s director of energy and some Public Utility Commission personnel.
“We’re going to participate in every way,” he said. “My view of the crisis is it is a tragedy beyond belief, and we’d better get to the answers so that we don’t have another.”
Green and Maui County officials have come under criticism for not being ready for the wildfire and for a chaotic and disorganized response. The danger of wildfires wasn't top of mind in the islands, Green said, when pressed about whether Hawaii should have been more prepared.
“Should we have invested more in fire prevention? Of course, of course. But we’d never had a fire of this consequence," Green said. Instead, he said, people have been more focused on more commonly occurring tragedies such as car accidents or drug overdoses.
The governor suggested lawsuits filed against various state and county entities have prevented those in positions of authority from speaking out more.
“I can’t speak to when people will apologize for this tragedy. I’m heartbroken, and I will tell you and anyone out there, ‘I’m so sorry you went through this.’ Of course. I’m just one person," he said.
"It’s the world who has to apologize for what we have become, where we have become a world where we turn our backs on global warming and where we didn’t prioritize things in advance,” Green said.
Green said he aims to set up a victims' assistance fund within two to three weeks in the mold of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and people who file claims should be able to get compensated in six to nine months. He did not specify which entities would contribute to the fund but said those that are currently parties to lawsuits would likely participate.