charred vehicles; fire-warped metals and blackened pillars; Among a mountain of rubble, the casing of an empty washing machine, the only indication that there was ever a house on that street in Lahaina, the former Hawaiian capital, on the island of Maui, turned to ashes by the deadliest fire in the United States. in more than a century. “The devastation is overwhelming,” President Joe Biden acknowledged during his visit to the city this Monday, two weeks after the fire that caused at least 114 deaths and 850 missing; teams on the ground informed him that some of the latter may never be located.
The US president traveled to Maui accompanied by his wife, Jill Biden, to see first-hand the extent of the disaster and convey a message of encouragement and comfort. The president had received harsh criticism from Republicans for his public silence in the early days after the disaster, when he responded with “no comment” to a question about it. Some accusations that particularly stung a president who aspires to make compassion his brand image. Since then, the White House had repeatedly insisted on the speed and forcefulness of federal assistance to those affected — a thousand officials from the disaster management agency (FEMA) are on the ground — and defended that Biden answered so because I had not heard the question.
“For as long as it takes, we will be with you. The whole country will be with you,” Biden said from Front Street, “ground zero” for the disaster. And he pointed to the hundred-year-old banyan tree emblem of the city. Although badly burned, it still stands. And the experts who care for him assure that with special care he will be able to get ahead. “The fire did not reach its roots,” Biden argued. “This is Maui. This is America.”
He also wanted to calm the fears of the local population that the reconstruction could dilute their culture or benefit speculators. “We will rebuild how the people of Maui want to rebuild,” respecting Hawaiian traditions, sacred places and culture. A message he reiterated at a meeting with some 350 community leaders, disaster survivors and volunteers.
Complaints about the lateness of the presidential visit
Not everyone seemed to accept that message in Lahaina, where complaints about the late arrival of aid and disaster management have abounded. As his entourage passed, some onlookers greeted him with a Hawaiian gesture, thumb and little finger, of good wishes. Others chose to use the middle finger.
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After the words of encouragement from the US president, Lahaina, a city of 12,000 inhabitants before the disaster, faces a reality riddled with problems that will take years to solve. FEMA data indicates that it has received close to 8,000 requests for assistance. The provisional shelters from the first days have already been emptied and nearly 2,000 people have been temporarily rehoused in hotel rooms and tourist residences.
Now the challenge is to make it possible for these evacuees to recover a normal life. That the children can go back to school now that the new course is about to start. That those who have lost their home once again have decent housing that they can feel like home. The White House internal security adviser, Liz Sherwood-Randall, stressed in a talk with journalists: “A recovery on this scale is a matter of years, not months. You have to go in stages… The first is to get people to a situation where they can function again and enjoy dignity in their lives.”
An essential part of this is the location of the disappeared and the discovery and identification of remains. A particularly difficult task, but one in which no effort or time will be spared, Sherwood-Randall promised. “It is essential for people to be able to turn the page,” she stressed, and at least “understand what happened to their loved ones, if they don’t get the satisfaction of knowing that they survived.”
The violence of the fire was such that it is still not one hundred percent contained. The high temperatures of the embers, the presence of glass and other debris mean that canine teams searching through the rubble must work with special protection, including booties for the legs, and rest frequently.
The work of the dogs is essential, pointed out the senior official, since their sense of smell allows them to distinguish between human remains and those of other living beings. These animals have already examined 2,000 buildings and 4,000 vehicles that were caught in the flames.
The flames consumed the bodies in many cases until they were unrecognizable. About 450 people, including forensic doctors and dentists, X-ray technicians and fingerprint specialists, are involved in the search and identification efforts. So far, it has been possible to name 27 of the 114 deceased, and the authorities have asked the relatives of the disappeared to provide DNA samples to help with the tasks.
Two more weeks to complete the quest
Already, 86% of the burned area has been surveyed, according to the Hawaiian government. But the most complicated part is missing: the multi-story buildings, which will require lifting some of the floors and structures. Local authorities estimate that it will still take at least two more weeks to complete that search.
About 850 people are on the official list of missing persons that the FBI has compiled after checking those made by its own office in Honolulu, the Red Cross, the Maui Department of Civil Protection and the local island police, according to the mayor. from Maui, Richard Bissen. The list had come to contain two thousand names, but about 1,300 people who appeared on them have been located.
The authorities recognize that it is more than likely that, among the people whose whereabouts are still unknown, there is at least one part that will never be located. The governor of Hawaii, Josh Green, admitted last Sunday on CBS: “We are extremely concerned that, given the temperatures of the fire, the remains of those who died, in some cases, may be impossible to recover. So there will be people who will be lost forever.
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