LAHAINA: Hawaii officials on Wednesday reopened a highway into West Maui to all motorists for the first time since last week’s deadly wildfire, but the devastated town of Lahaina remained closed as the painstaking search for hundreds of missing dragged on.
The highway, which bypasses the “destruction zone” on the northwestern shore of the island, was previously closed to all but residents of the surrounding area, first responders and people who work in local businesses.
Except for a brief relaxation earlier this week, authorities have barred entry into the zone to allow the slow process of finding and identifying victims to proceed as quickly as possible.
In Washington, the White House said President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden would travel to Hawaii next week to survey the destruction, meet with first responders and survivors, and confer with officials over relief efforts.
“I remain committed to delivering everything the people of Hawaii need as they recover from this disaster,” Biden said in a post on the social media platform X, previously known as Twitter.
On Wednesday Biden approved Hawaii’s request that the federal government to reimburse the full cost of 30 days of the emergency work expected to be carried out over the next four months, said Deanne Criswell, head of the US Federal Emergency Management Administration (Fema), during a news briefing at the White House.
Criswell, who visited Maui last week, said the community was going through an “amazingly traumatic event,” and said Biden “is going to be able to bring hope” during his visit next week.
The federal government so far has given out US$2.3 million in assistance to families, and approved more than 1,300 registrations for assistance, Criswell said in Wednesday’s briefing.
With the number of confirmed deaths now standing at 106, dozens of canine search teams and 700 federal personnel were working with local officials in the search for more victims, Fema said on Wednesday.
The teams had covered only 27% of the disaster area as of Tuesday, governor Josh Green said in a televised address. Some 80% to 90% of the zone is expected to have been swept by the weekend.
The inferno killed at least 106 people after racing from grasslands outside town into Lahaina last Tuesday and charring a 13-square-km area of town in hours. The fire, which caught residents by surprise, destroyed 2,200 buildings and caused an estimated US$5.5 billion in damage, officials said.
A week later, traumatised residents have grown weary from living off relief supplies. Until Wednesday’s reopening, many have been kept from inspecting their homes and still left awaiting news of their missing loved ones.
The lack of access to homes and businesses has helped fuel frustrations in the community of 13,000 people. Maui Fresh Streatery, a local business, urged people in a Facebook post to refrain from using the highway into town for sightseeing.
“There will be plenty of time later to see the immensity and scale of this disaster,” it said. “Let us allow this time for our Lahaina residents.”
Kiet Ma, who has worked as a taxi driver on the island for 20 years, is one of the few who has been able to return to his home to assess the damage. He and his wife Daisy are now staying indefinitely with family on the outskirts of Lahaina.
“So many years we put our hard work into that house. We have no chance to take anything out. No warning, no nothing. Thank God I have my husband and I still survive,” Daisy Ma said.
The cause of the fire is yet to be determined and it remains under investigation. The New York Times, citing interviews and video evidence, reported the brush fire that spread into Lahaina started from a broken power line.
As officials work to identify the deceased, stories about those who perished have emerged from loved ones.
Relatives of Kevin and Saane Tanaka said on the fundraising website GoFundMe, that the bodies of Saane’s sister, 7-year-old nephew and parents were found in a burned-out car near their home.
“Words cannot express how devastating this is for the family,” the post said, noting that the family have had no time to grieve after taking in more than a dozen other displaced relatives.