Does anyone remember the Maui wildfires? It remains one of the worst wildfires in American history. It’s the one where Joe Biden did not comment about the rising death toll because he was too busy enjoying the beach. The man took two vacations before his little visit to the island two weeks after the blaze killed nearly 100 people and caused at least $6 billion in damages. The fires broke out on August 8, destroying entire communities; Joe arrived two weeks later.
There’s a new development in the death toll. It’s been revised down, from 115 to 97. It’s still tragic, but the island’s medical examiner had some remarks that are indelicate in print (via NYT):
The authorities announced on Friday that they currently believe 97 people died in the Maui wildfire instead of the 115 fatalities they had been reporting for weeks, a surprising development after initial fears that many more lives had been lost in the disaster.
Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel, the medical examiner for Maui County, said in a news conference that the process of confirming dead victims and identifying them through DNA analysis had been difficult and changing ever since the fire on Aug. 8 that destroyed most of Lahaina.
It is the first time that the Maui death toll has dropped. In some instances, Dr. Stuelpnagel explained, forensic examiners have determined that they had multiple sets of remains for the same person. He also said that 16 of the remains that investigators had received were nonhuman.
“It’s good news to have a lower number, that’s for darn sure,” Dr. Stuelpnagel said on Friday.
For more than three weeks, officials said that at least 115 people died, a number that held firm even as hundreds were said to be missing and investigators kept combing through the ruins of central Lahaina.
But the number of people unaccounted for has now fallen to 31, John Pelletier, the chief of the Maui Police Department, said on Friday. After publishing multiple versions of lists with names of people thought to be missing, the authorities have located most of the individuals.
Identifying the dead has been a massive undertaking that has drawn out for more than a month, requiring DNA samples from family, dental experts and dealing with remains that are burned beyond recognition.
Dr. Stuelpnagel said there were cases where they had the remains of someone, but later found bones with the same DNA.
He also said there were 16 cases that were nonhuman, “mixed in with the other people who have come through, so there’s lots and lots of moving bits of information in this situation.”
Doc, I’m not sure you can call the new death count “good news.” Second, it’s not like there was a massive drop here—almost 100 people still died. The good news is the dramatic reduction in missing persons, which initially came in at around 1,000 people. It was revised to hundreds in the ensuing days, then 66, and now 31. That’s the good news. Hundreds of people missing to 31 is cause for relief. A mere 18-person drop in the death count, which was already high, is not “good news.”
The Maui fires were the deadliest in over a century.