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Why Are Close to 400 People Still Missing on Maui?

The Maui fire’s human toll is already horrific: 115 people have been confirmed dead after a rapidly moving blaze swept across the west side of the Hawaiian island earlier this month, making it the deadliest wildfire in the United States in over a century. “No one has ever seen this that is alive today,” Maui police chief John Pelleiter said at a news conference Wednesday. “Not this size, not this number, not this volume — and we’re not done.”


The number of missing comes way down

The number of missing people has fluctuated since the fires destroyed the town of Lahaina in early August. As of Monday, the number of missing people was at 850 — then shot up to 1,100 as the FBI vetted its database of missing people to contact and mark safe. That number fell again as efforts to contact those missing people expanded. On Friday, Maui County released a list of 388 people who were still missing.

The names of those still missing are made public

The list of the 388 also including the names of the missing so that family can either mark their loved ones as safe or inform officials that they are still unaccounted for. “We know that it will help with the investigation,” Police Chief John Pelletier said in a statement. “We also know that once those names come out, it can and will cause pain for folks whose loved ones are listed. This is not an easy thing to do, but we want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make this investigation as complete and thorough as possible.”

Why has the number of missing fluctuated so much?

The aftermath of the Maui fire left evacuees scattered across the island and rescuers searching through rubble for the remains of victims of a blaze hot enough to melt cars. (As of Monday, officials were only able to identify 27 of the 100-plus victims.) The large number of tourists on the island and the substantial number of homeless residents in Lahaina also pose major challenges, as tourists were likely to head to the mainland — not necessarily aware that they were being searched for — and homeless residents do not always have easily traceable contact information.

“Any time you’ve got a situation where there’s no communication, disrupted transportation, those lead to breakdowns in information sharing as well,” a spokesperson for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency told the Washington Post.

Steven Merril, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Honolulu field office, told NBC News that the toll of missing person “doesn’t necessarily mean that these people, are in fact, missing.” Looking at past fires helps put the trend in perspective. After the 2018 Camp Fire, which was the deadliest in modern U.S. history until Maui, over 1,000 people were reported missing. By the time the difficult work of identifying remains was completed, 85 deaths were confirmed — a tragic number, but far short of the early missing figures. Still, officials fear that the death toll could still rise considerably.


A difficult search continues

The search effort on Maui remains an extremely difficult effort. Several names on the missing list are just first names, and others do not have identifying information like gender or age. With the search of single-story buildings in Lahaina complete, recovery teams are now focusing on multi-story buildings that collapsed in the blaze. “We know there are going to be tragedies in the buildings that haven’t yet been searched,” Governor Josh Green told Hawaii News Now. Green estimated that the search would take one-to-two weeks.

Due to the intensity of the blaze, identifying remains is a tremendous challenge: Officials have encouraged those with missing loved ones to submit DNA to a database to help identify victims whose partial remains have been recovered. (A little over 40 of the victims have been identified so far.) “Realistically, we’re going to have a number of confirmed, we’re going to have a number of presumed,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said at a press conference on Tuesday. Pelletier compared the challenge of finding human remains to the September 11 attacks. “Two thousand people on 9/11 were not recovered,” he said. “We have an entire town that was destroyed.”

Full story: NYMag August 25, 2023

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