Number of missing in Maui wildfires will fall to double digits, governor says

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The number of people missing three weeks after a catastrophic wildfire destroyed the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina is expected to drop into the double digits, Gov. Josh Green said Thursday.

At a daily briefing about recovery efforts in the aftermath of the Aug. 8 fire on Maui, which killed 115 people, he pointed to a whiteboard that put the number of people unaccounted for at 50.

“We’re heartsick, but we’re still seeing the number of unaccounted-for individuals drop,” he said in a video on social media.

“We’re going to get a big update tomorrow, and pending that update, we think that number is going to drop into the double digits, so thank God,” he said.

A list of the unaccounted-for released last Friday by the FBI included the names of 388 people, but many have come forward to say they’ve been reunited with their loved ones or were never missing to begin with.

Green said he expected the number of dead to remain at 115.

The wildfire that destroyed much of Lahaina was one of three that erupted on the island that day, fueled by dry grasses and high winds.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness said they believe the number of missing could be much higher than what officials are reporting, because they may not be accounting for residents who were living on the streets or in their cars when the fire exploded.

“There are people that are literally going to be missing forever,” said Kurt Schmidt, the interim director of Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers. “They’re already being forgotten and pushed aside, and now this. What happens to their memory, to their existence?”

According to a list of missing homeless residents maintained by volunteers and advocates, at least 30 unsheltered people remain unaccounted for, said Jelena Dackovic, the former director of the Maui Rescue Alliance.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the names on Dackovic’s list matched those released by the government. She said the majority of people still missing are likely to be homeless residents.

“I was hoping there would be an equal effort to find the homeless,” Dackovic said. “It looks like the governor’s list are only people who have emergency contact or phone numbers, so the list of missing is probably higher.”

A request for comment from the governor’s office was referred to the Maui Police Department, which could not immediately be reached by phone.

“Hopefully, in time we’ll some clarity on this,” Schmidt said. 

Finding missing or dead homeless residents is especially difficult, because they don’t always carry cellphones or have dedicated groups of people checking in on them, service providers say.

“No one is going to give DNA or file a missing report,” Schmidt said.

About 704 of the 6,223 homeless people in Hawaii live on Maui, according to the 2023 federal point-in-time count, but service providers said the numbers are likely to be higher because unsheltered people tend to be undercounted.

Green said Thursday that search-and-rescue crews have mostly completed canvassing the burn area, which includes Lahaina, the original capital of Hawaii, and other cultural landmarks.

Officials have suggested responders have recovered all the recognizable human remains they were able to find and are shifting their focus to removing hazardous materials before they allow residents to begin returning.

“We have wrapped up almost completely the search-and-recovery mission and moving into the next phase,” Darryl Oliveira, the interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said this week at a news conference.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said this week that urban search-and-rescue teams have “completed 100% of their area” but that some activity continues in the ocean off Lahaina.

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