A thousand people remain unaccounted for following the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history, as officials warned the death toll of 53 from Tuesday and Wednesday’s wildfires was likely to rise significantly.
Josh Green, the governor of Hawaii, stressed that he was not saying 1,000 people were dead, but merely that communication was impossible and theire whereabouts unknown.
Asked on Thursday evening for the number of dead, Green said: ‘Honestly, we don’t know.
‘And here’s the challenge: there’s no power, no internet, no phone, no radio. You compound some of that. So when we’re speaking to our officers, we need them to get a sat phone.
‘There’s around 1,000 missing.
‘It doesn’t mean that many have passed – I’m not saying that at all – but because we can’t contact them we can’t know.’
Green said that cadaver dogs were being brought in from California and Washington to assist the search.
‘We have a family assistance center set up, so anyone missing anyone at all, people can go there and give their details,’ he said.
‘If we can reunify people we will, and give notifications if we need to.’
Green said the destruction in the historic town of Lahaina, which was largely razed to the ground, was barely believable.
Hawaii is experiencing a drought, which provided ample fuel for the blaze: tailwinds from Hurricane Dora created gusts of up to 60mph, meaning there was little warning for many as the fire roared up to their doors.
‘It’s a heartbreaking day, without a doubt,’ said Green.
‘What we have seen today is catastrophic.
‘All of us will have a loved one here on Maui that lost a house, that lost a friend. ‘
Green urged those living on Maui and other islands to open their doors to take in those who had lost their homes, asking hotels to also assist in providing 2,000 rooms.
‘If you have additional space, if you have capacity to take someone in, please do,’ said Green.
‘Please take these people into your lives.’
He said that the recovery process would be long, slow and painful, but thanked the federal agencies for their swift response.
He said the damage would be in the billions, but it was too soon to worry about buildings when people were still missing.
‘It will be in the billions of dollars, without a doubt,’ he said.
‘But first we have to focus on lives lost. It will take time. Many years to rebuild Lahaina.
‘When you see the full extent it will shock you.’
He described the devastation as unprecedented, saying Hawaii had not experienced anything like it since it became the 50th state in 1959.
‘We’ve never experienced a wildfire that affected a city before,’ he said.
‘We have had wildfires, but not in urban space.
‘I think we’re seeing this for the first time in many different parts of the world.’
He said it was what happens when ‘global warming combines with drought.’
John Pelletier, chief of Maui police, said his officers were not equipped to go building-to-building in an unsafe environment searching for bodies, and stressed the job needed to be done sensitively.
‘We don’t normally go into buildings and pull out bodies,’ he said.
‘We need to do it slow and methodical, so we respect everything and bring people to the resting place the right way.’
Pressed on the death toll, he said: ‘It’s 53, it is rising. I don’t know what the final number will be.
‘It’s incredible. And it’s going to be devastating.’
Pelletier said the community was coming together, describing them as ‘Maui Strong’.
‘We have a scar on the face of Maui that will be here for a very long time,’ he said.
‘We know scars heal, but they always remain.
‘We need patience, prayers, and perseverance.’
Jeff Hickman, the public affairs director for the Hawaii Department of Defense, said there were 30 burns victims, three of them seriously injured.
‘We’re going to have to go building by building, block by block, trying to find bodies,’ he said.
Then there will be an initial clean up, and then residents will be allowed to return.
‘It’s going to be a long process.’
He said they were trying to ‘get the visitors out and take care of the residents.’
He added: ‘Everyone goes to Lahaina. It had the best Halloween party. It had the best fishing. Tourists flock there because it’s a neat town. I’m sure it’ll bounce back, but it’ll be a while.’
Hickman, a former member of the National Guard, said: ‘We never thought it would happen, and we’ve never seen anything like this.
‘It’s just amazing. It’s something we’ve never seen, and never expected.’
Green, meanwhile, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that 1,700 buildings were probably destroyed in the fire.
He said most buildings in Lahaina, a historic town in Maui, are completely gone, some of them still smoldering.
Only some stone buildings are still standing, he said.
‘We also are only now getting some of our search and rescue personnel into other houses,’ Green said, adding that helicopters are also surveying the area.
The cause of the wildfire remains unknown.
The National Weather Service said dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity fueled them.
Green said it was likely to prove a worse natural disaster than the tsunami of May 1960, sparked by an earthquake in Chile.
That tragedy left 61 people dead.