(CNN) — Crews in west Maui are continuing the heart-wrenching work of sifting through the ashes of what used to be homes and beloved landmarks as the death toll from the deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years is still rising.
Ninety-six people have been confirmed dead, officials said Sunday night, an uptick from the previous count of 93. An unknown number of people are still unaccounted for as search teams with cadaver dogs look for remains in devastated neighborhoods.
As the death toll rises, officials are facing questions about their preparation for a disaster of this scale and their response to it:
• While the deadly fires spread rapidly into neighborhoods, the largest siren system in the world was silent. Emergency communications with residents were largely limited to mobile phones and broadcasters at a time when most power and cell service was already knocked out.
• The state’s main electric provider, Hawaiian Electric, is facing a lawsuit claiming power lines blown over by high winds helped to cause the destructive Lahaina wildfire, though an official cause of the wildfire has not yet been determined.
• Hawaii’s emergency management agency reported last year the risk posed by wildfires to human life was low. Officials underestimated the deadly threat of wildfires even as they acknowledged a lack of necessary resources to mitigate them, records show.
“This is the largest natural disaster we’ve ever experienced,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said at a Saturday night news conference. “It’s going to also be a natural disaster that’s going to take an incredible amount of time to recover from.”
The Maui wildfires are the deadliest in the US in more than a century, surpassing the California’s 2018 Camp Fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier Saturday said it was premature to assign even an approximate dollar amount to the damage done on Maui, the governor estimated “the losses approach $6 billion.”
Firefighters have made progress against the three largest wildfires, but the deadly fire in hard-hit Lahaina was still not fully under control, Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said Saturday. As of 3 p.m. local time Sunday the Lahaina wildfire, stretching across 2,170 acres, was 85% contained.
People still missing while 3% of area searched
As searches of the burned ruins continue, officials said they don’t know exactly how many people are still unaccounted for. It’s unclear how many of those still missing simply have not yet been able to communicate with their loved ones or the authorities.
By Saturday night, just 3% of the fire zone had been searched with cadaver dogs, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.
“None of us really know the size of it yet,” he added.
While some have turned up in shelters, families still are desperately searching for loved ones.
“There are still people who are unaccounted for. They need to be identified,” US Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said. “There is a call for people to come in to provide DNA.”
Of the dozens found dead across the burn area, only two people had been identified as of Saturday, according to Maui County.
“The remains we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal. We have to do rapid DNA to identify everyone,” Pelletier said.
There have been some stories of hope: A grandfather finally reached his family three days after they last heard from him.
Brittany Talley and her family last heard from her grandfather, Timm “TK” Williams Sr., on Wednesday when the 66-year-old man sent a photo of a raging wildfire on Maui as he evacuated from Kaanapali.
On Saturday, Williams was able to get enough signal on his cell phone to text Talley’s mother, telling the family he was safe, Talley told CNN.
“Thousands of people are experiencing the worst moment of their lives right now, so receiving a text was a small gesture, but a huge blessing for my entire family,” Talley said.
Tasha Pagdilao, a Maui firefighter, said she lost her uncle to the fire. She said her experience battling the flames was surreal.
“It seemed like an apocalypse,” Pagdilao told “CNN This Morning” on Monday. “Everything seemed to be on fire.”
She urged people to give the community time to heal before traveling into affected areas. “I know a lot of people (are) eager to get back into Lahaina and see what’s left, but give our first responders time,” she said.
Warning sirens were not activated
As people fled for their lives, Hawaii’s network of about 400 alarms, meant to alert residents to tsunamis and other natural disasters, was never activated, according to Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub.
“There were multiple fires at the same time, and the circumstance was greatly complicated also by the heat and the speed with which the fire spread, destroying a great deal of infrastructure,” Green said Saturday when asked about why sirens weren’t activated.
“Over time, we’ll be able to figure out if we could have better protected people. That’s why we’re reviewing everything,” he added.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez is set to lead a comprehensive review of officials’ response to the catastrophic wildfires, her office announced Friday. The review will encompass “critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires,” the attorney general’s office said.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s main electric provider is already facing a lawsuit claiming electrified power lines blown over by high winds helped to cause the Lahaina wildfire.
“By failing to shut off the power during these dangerous fire conditions, Defendants caused loss of life, serious injuries, destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people, and damage to many of Hawai’i’s historic and cultural sites,” says the complaint filed Saturday against Hawaiian Electric Industries and three subsidiaries, including the power servicing Maui.
“These power lines foreseeably ignited the fastmoving, deadly, and destructive Lahaina Fire, which destroyed homes, businesses, churches, schools, and historic cultural sites,” the lawsuit states.
Maui County Mayor Richard T. Bissen Jr. acknowledged Thursday that power lines that were “still energized” had fallen on the roads, but the new lawsuit does not state exactly how the power lines allegedly caused the wildfire. An official cause of the wildfire has not yet been determined.
In a statement to CNN on Sunday, Hawaiian Electric vice president Jim Kelly said, “As has always been our policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation.”
“Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible. At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review,” Kelly told CNN in an email.
Lahaina wildfire traveled a mile every minute
The disaster began when simultaneous wildfires began spreading erratically Tuesday, suddenly engulfing homes, forcing harrowing escapes and displacing thousands. The most destructive and deadly of the fires, the Lahaina wildfire, traveled at an extraordinary speed, the governor said in a video update Sunday afternoon.
“When the winds rose up – winds gusting as high as 81 mph – fires spread rapidly,” Green said. “We believe between 60 mph and 81 mph across that part of the island, and that meant that fire traveled one mile every minute.”
By Tuesday afternoon, winds associated with powerful Hurricane Dora, passing hundreds of miles south of Hawaii, were fanning the flames of wildfires and multiple evacuations were announced for the Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires.
The flames jumped across highways and suddenly showed up in people’s yards and homes. “It was a very fast-moving fire,” US Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said Saturday.
The fire was moving “low to the ground and structure to structure – incredibly fast that outpaced anything the firefighters could have done in the early hours,” she added.
Lahaina is the hardest hit area
Around 2,200 structures have been destroyed or damaged because of the fires in western Maui, where the hard-hit historic town of Lahaina is located, according to Green. About 86% of the structures were residential, he added.
The “older neighborhood” of Lahaina, an economic hub in western Maui that drew millions of tourists each year, is destroyed, Bissen has previously said.
“It is going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina. When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you,” Green said last week.
The devastation has displaced thousands of people, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell estimated. As of Friday night, a total of 1,418 people were at emergency evacuation shelters, according to Maui County officials.
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