Officials estimated that some 1,000 were unaccounted for, 1,700 buildings burned and 2,000 people were in shelters as the Lahaina wildfire continued to burn.

Paralyzed by guilt and regret, Eric Lee spent much of Thursday trying to quiet the haunting refrain running through his head: “I can’t believe I left without my mom. What kind of person does that?”

Maui County

It had been almost 48 hours since Lee fled his Lahaina rental home with only his passport, cell phone and wallet; a wad of cash; three family photo albums; an extra pair of board shorts and the car he maneuvered to safety through plumes of black smoke, downed power lines and airborne roof shingles.

As he bolted from the wildfire that would raze an entire community that night, Lee called his 68-year-old mother Dolores Lee and told her to evacuate. He hadn’t heard from his mother since.

Uncertainty morphed into dread when Lee learned that his mother’s Front Street home burned to the ground Tuesday night. Lee’s rental house was also razed.

Relief arrived in the form of a 2 p.m. phone call from Lee’s auntie telling him that his mother was safe at the home of a friend in Kaanapali, part of the larger West Maui region where cell phone and internet service has been knocked out.

“It was the most amazing moment I’ve ever had when I got to hug her again,” the 39-year-old tour guide said, fighting back tears. “And now we’re just sitting here, both of us homeless, just happy to be together with nothing but each other and some bottled water.”

Hawaii National Guardsmen walk Front Street searching for people Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. They mark buildings and vehicles to indicate if people were located in an initial, no-entry search. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Hawaii National Guard members walk Front Street as they search for survivors of wildfires in Lahaina. They mark buildings and vehicles to indicate if people were located in an initial, no-entry search. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The extent of the damage from the wildfires that hit the historic town in West Maui this week, killing at least 55 people, is coming into focus as firefighters continue to beat back flames and rescue workers comb through the rubble of flattened neighborhoods in Lahaina.

Gov. Josh Green said it was “likely the largest natural disaster” in the island state’s history.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday after touring Lahaina, the hardest hit area, Green estimated as many as 1,700 structures had been lost. Damage assessments have been hampered by continued wildfires, which spread rapidly starting on Tuesday, apparently fueled by strong winds as Hurricane Dora passed south of the islands.

President Joe Biden issued a national disaster declaration for Hawaii earlier Thursday.

Rolando Bumanglag, 65, only has slippers while he digs for his passport and other important papers Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. He thinks it would be in this area of his large house because his room was on the second floor. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Rolando Bumanglag, 65, only has slippers while he digs for his passport and other important papers Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. He thinks it would be in this area of his large house because his room was on the second floor. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

More than 2,000 people were staying in shelters across Maui as organizations raced to collect and distribute essential supplies ranging from cots and blankets to toothpaste and pet food. Some livestock owners in West Maui faced the difficult choice between staying with their animals or seeking shelter but not knowing when they’ll be permitted to return to their farms and pastures.

Several medical professionals said Thursday that they’re bracing for the possibility of hundreds more casualties as well as an enormous need for trauma and grief support.

Officials estimated about 1,000 people remained unaccounted for, although they stressed that included those who were simply unable to make contact after the wildfire burned fiber optic cables, rendering communications impossible across much of West Maui. An informal Google doc had 1,100 names.

Hawaii National Guard members searched for survivors in Lahaina, which had been lined with artisan shops and food trucks before the flames tore through the area. They marked buildings and vehicles to indicate if people were located in an initial, no-entry search.

The food line at the War Memorial Gymnasium grows at lunch time for those displaced by the wildfires photographed on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The War Memorial Gymnasium in Kahului is one of several shelters set up for people displaced by the wildfires. Gov. Josh Green appealed to hoteliers and residents in Hawaii to help provide temporary housing. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Kathleen Hogarty, director of advancement at Hospice Maui, said the agency’s 90-person staff, which includes nurses and social workers, is counseling wildfire survivors and treating wounds. In conversations with those who escaped the fire, medical staff have pieced together a grim portrait of a fast-moving fire that trapped and incinerated people in traffic gridlock on the main road that feeds through Lahaina town.

Some people fled their vehicles on foot, clutching pets. Others ran into the ocean to escape the heat and galloping flames. The menacing blaze turned the air so hot, according to one hospice worker whose son is a firefighter in Lahaina, that it melted the glass on a fire truck.

“I have social workers that are working with the people that made it out and the horror stories they’re getting of seeing people just on fire as they were running to escape the wall of fire that came, it’s horrific,” Hogarty said. “One of the survivors said everybody was just jumping into the ocean to escape it. Another social worker reported that she sat with a woman who was treading water for six hours with her dad. Her dad didn’t make it. One woman who survived the fire said she saw a car right in front of her go up in flames and there was a family with kids in the car.”

Some of the vehicles that made it out drove out of Lahaina with open doors to allow people on foot to jump inside and escape.

When asked how many people are missing or trapped, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said officials didn’t know because communications have been largely knocked out.

He said the search and rescue effort so far has consisted of National Guard units and local first responders, including his own officers who were overwhelmed.

“My cops answer calls for service. They go chase bad guys. They go build cases. They don’t normally, we don’t normally — it’s a crisis I understand that — go into buildings and pull out some of the bodies,” he told reporters. “We’ve got to do it slow and methodical.”

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier says the death toll is expected to rise. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Help was on the way. California deployed urban search and rescue forces as well as mass fatality management to help with the effort in Maui.

“Californians know firsthand the devastating toll of catastrophic wildfires fueled by climate change, capable of wiping out entire communities and centuries of irreplaceable history and heritage,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press release.

The destruction includes 10 subsidized homes built by Habitat for Humanity Maui in April 2021. The nonprofit helps people who earn 80% or less of the area median income — about $88,000 for a family of four — construct and own their own home with a zero interest mortgage. 

The housing project in the Lahaina’s Kahoma area had been occupied by many first-time homeowners, including a family of five that had previously crammed into a studio apartment, a single mom with four kids and a job with Maui County and a young couple, ages 25 and 27, with two kids who had compared their new homeownership to winning the lottery.

Now, with their two-year-old homes burned to the ground, these families have been thrown back into a housing market that for years has been unaffordable for many locals.

“It’s so sad that we lost all this housing and I don’t know if it’s even more sad that some of it was affordable housing meant to get people out of the situation that they’re in now,” said Matt Bachman, Habitat’s executive director.

Bachman said he still hasn’t heard from two of the housing project’s homeowners, including a 70-year-old veteran.

“I’m texting three or four times a day,” Bachman said. “I have been asking around if anyone else has seen the person. I check the online Google sheet with all the names of people that are missing at least a couple times a day to see if their name is on it. It’s not, which I think is a good thing. It’s just scary not to know. I don’t know if it’s consoling that there’s no communication, but I can say to myself, ‘Well, they’re probably fine. They probably just can’t make a call or a text where they are.’”

Civil Beat reporter Jack Truesdale contributed to this report.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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