The death toll from devastating wildfires that swept across Hawaii this week has increased to 55, Maui County officials confirmed late Thursday, as residents asked why the state’s emergency warning system failed to alert them as the flames approached.
The Maui fire is already the second deadliest wildfire in U.S. history and the worst natural disaster to hit Hawaii since a 1960 tsunami that claimed 61 lives. Officials warned the death toll will keep rising.
More than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Thursday, and widespread electric and service outages have left all of western Maui in the dark and out of communication.
Asked how many of those missing people are suspected to be dead, Green answered, “Honestly, we don’t know.”
“It doesn’t mean that many have passed,” Green said. “I’m not saying that at all, but because we can’t contact them, we can’t know.”
Firefighters tackling the blaze that utterly destroyed the historic town of Lahaina on Maui’s west coast had found two more dead by the end of Thursday in addition to the 53 discovered earlier in the day and on Wednesday.
As the conflagration erupted on Tuesday—and accelerated with strong winds from a hurricane passing hundreds of miles off the coast—Hawaii’s residents say they did not hear warning sirens, instead only realizing their lives were in danger when they saw the flames racing toward them or heard explosions nearby.
Hawaii has what the state calls the world’s largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public warning system, with about 400 sirens linked across the chain of islands. It’s supposed to be used to notify locals of natural disasters and other threats. But Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub told the Associated Press on Thursday that the departmental records do not show that the sirens on Maui were activated. Emergency alerts were instead sent to cellphones and broadcast on TV and radio, Weintraub said.
It’s not clear, however, if those warnings were issued before power and cellular outages severed most communications in Lahaina, a town of about 13,000 residents that was totally wiped out in the inferno. “It’s all gone,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said. “None of it’s there. It’s all burnt to the ground.”
Green said the “utter devastation of Lahaina” was “catastrophic” and that it would likely take “many years” to rebuild. “When you see the full… The full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you. It does appear like a bomb and fire went off,” Green added.
As well as the lack of warning, firefighting efforts may have been hindered by a lack of staff, according to Hawaii Firefighters Association President Bobby Lee. A maximum of 65 firefighters work at any time to deal with fire across three islands, and while the crews have 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, the department doesn’t have any off-road vehicles, Lee said. In turn, that means the crews can’t intervene in brush fires until they approach populated areas or roads. “You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” Lee said. “You’ve got to be careful—you don’t want to get caught downwind from that, because you’re going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude.”
Destruction in Maui’s west is so severe, a local nonprofit says it can’t access the area to search for those who became trapped in the fast-moving flames. Lauren Henrie, a spokesperson for Maui Rescue Mission, told CNN that western Maui is “completely cut off from communication and power.”
Henrie said her team is desperate to get into cities—like Lahaina—and begin searching for the 1,000-plus people that have been listed as unaccounted for in local Facebook groups.
While the area is cut off by land, Henrie said supplies have been delivered to some of those stranded on the island’s west by boat, but those efforts alone won’t be enough.
“We are looking at years, years of recovery right now,” she said.
Earlier on Thursday, President Joe Biden declared a “major disaster” in Hawaii and expanded federal aid to the state’s recovery efforts, the White House said in a statement. “We’re working as quickly as possible to fight those fires and evacuate residents and tourists,” Biden said during a speech in Utah. “In the meantime, our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers: every asset that we have will be available to them.”