By Katabella Roberts
Many children are likely among the 850 people currently missing on the Hawaiian island of Maui following deadly wildfires earlier this month, according to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green.
The governor made the comments during an appearance on CBS News’ “Face The Nation” on Aug. 20.
Mr. Green said more than 1,000 individuals were still unaccounted for following the deadly fires. Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said on Facebook on Aug. 21 that 850 people were still missing as search and rescue efforts continue.
Mr. Green noted the possibility that many of those missing were likely children, given that a large number of children were at home at the time the fires hit due to school closures.
“That is possible, and that’s what we’re sharing here internally, that it’s possible that there will be many children,” he said. “This is the largest catastrophe and disaster that’s ever hit Maui, probably that’s ever hit Hawaii outside of wartime events. … Right now we are trying to make sure everyone is sheltered, and we begin to get all the federal resources we can to make life in some way livable for the survivors.”
Mr. Green said there are currently six hotels on the island filled with families that survived.
The governor added that the surviving children would likely be able to return to school later this week in some cases, noting various resources in place to help children get back to school.
“We also are doing distance learning. A lot of that was implemented during the COVID pandemic,” he said. “King Kamehameha Elementary School in Lahaina is burned to the ground. I mean, it’s totally gone. It used to host 650 children. Some of those children have passed. Others will, of course, go to neighboring schools.”
Mr. Green said Lahaina is a very rural part of Hawaii and the schools are far apart.
“We’ve authorized other means of transportation, you know, vans and things to help families get farther distances to school,” he continued.
The fast-spreading wildfires broke out on Aug. 8 and scorched through large swathes of land, damaging at least 2,207 buildings, according to preliminary numbers released on Aug. 12 by the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center.
At least 86 percent of the damaged structures were residential, according to the preliminary report.
Approximately 4,500 people are currently in sheltered accommodation after being displaced, the preliminary data show.
It is not yet clear how the fires started, but the devastation—fueled by dry conditions and powerful winds from Hurricane Dora—represents the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island.
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In a video message shared on Facebook on Monday, Mr. Bissen said the fires had killed 114 people, 27 of whom had been identified, and 11 families have been notified of their loss.
However, the mayor warned that those numbers may change amid ongoing search and rescue efforts.
Mr. Green told CBS News that officials are concerned that “because of the temperature of the fire, the remains of those who have died, in some cases, may be impossible to recover meaningfully.”
“So there are going to be people that are lost forever. And right now we’re working obviously with the FBI and everyone on the ground to make sure that we do what we can to assess who’s missing,” he said.
On Monday, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrived in Maui to meet with survivors and first responders and see the destruction in Lahaina. During the visit, President Biden announced the appointment of Bob Fenton as chief federal response coordinator to oversee long-term recovery efforts in Maui.
“Jill and I are here to grieve with you but also want you to know the entire country is here for you. That’s not hyperbole. We mean that. The entire country is here for you,” President Biden said in an address to survivors
“We just surveyed the damage. I want you to know: whatever it takes, as long as it takes … we’re going to get it done for you, but get it done the way you want it done, not get it done somebody else’s way,” he said.
As of Aug. 21, the Olinda and Kula fires remain 85 percent contained, according to officials, while the Lahaina fire is 90 percent contained, covering an estimated 2,170 acres. The Pulehu/Kihei fire has been declared fully contained.