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Emergency crews in Maui work to contain wildfires and shelter survivors


Thousands have spent the night in evacuation shelters on the Hawaiian island of Maui after fast-moving wildfires devastated parts of the island, killing at least 36 people. The fire has burned more than 1,100 acres and destroyed at least 271 structures. Strong winds from Hurricane Dora that stoked the flames also downed trees and power lines, leaving more than 14,000 residents without power. Napua Greig (ph) lives on Maui with her 80-year-old mother. The two were evacuated from their homes but have since been able to return.

NAPUA GREIG: It's so hard to stand by and watch your friends and family suffer. And you want to do something right now. We don't really know what to do.

MCCAMMON: I'm joined now by the lieutenant governor of Hawaii, Sylvia Luke. Thank you so much for being here.

SYLVIA LUKE: No, thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: First of all, just help us understand, if you could, the scale of devastation that's been caused by these wildfires.

LUKE: You know, this is usually Hawaii's hurricane season. We see a significant amount of rain and flooding associated with rain. We have never experienced this type of - wildfires as a result of a hurricane. What has made it even worse is, when the wildfires were triggered because of the temperature condition, the gusts produced by the Category 4 Hurricane Dora was in the upwards of 75 to 85 mph, which resulted in many of these brush fires. This is very devastating. I did an aerial flight with the Coast Guard and saw firsthand how the fire devastated the town of Lahaina. Homes were destroyed. Businesses were destroyed. It just looked like, you know, the whole town ran itself into ashes. And we're so heartbroken to see this happen before our eyes.

MCCAMMON: We've heard about the rising death toll. What about injuries? What else are you seeing?

LUKE: Individuals had burn injuries. Some of those individuals are being medevacked to Oahu for burn treatment. Individuals with smoke inhalation are being treated onsite. From what I understand, because there is a shelter-in-place order, the mayor is discouraging people from unnecessarily leaving their house. A lot of people with injuries are not going to the hospital, so we're encouraging people to still go to the hospital and, you know, take care of themselves.

MCCAMMON: You know, unlike other parts of the U.S., you kind of alluded to the fact that Hawaii isn't used to seeing these kinds of wildfires. I mean, do you have what you need to care for evacuees? And what kind of help does the state need?

LUKE: The Big Island and Maui County have opened shelters. The unfortunate thing is, because of the large number of individuals being evacuated, a lot of times the shelters became overused. And because the wildfires were traveling, many of the shelters had to close down and reopen at different places. We are getting significant amount of federal support. National Guard has been triggered. FEMA is providing assistance.

MCCAMMON: How are people coping? I mean, have you had a chance to talk to people in these shelters or talk to evacuees? How are people doing?

LUKE: A lot of individuals will have mental health issues. They're suffering. They have never been in a situation where they just overnight lost the businesses that they invested in. It's going to take years, sometimes maybe decades, for us to replace some of the infrastructure, including schools and roads.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned recovery will take some time. I mean, many areas have lost power and phone service. How is that affecting response and rescue efforts?

LUKE: In certain areas, especially in Lahaina, West Maui, they lost 911 service. Individuals with cellphones could not make calls. Internet was down. So communicating with family members and loved ones who were not with them, that has been a challenge. It will take a while for cell service and internet service to get back online.

MCCAMMON: You know, we've been talking about how unusual this is. Hawaiians are used to, maybe, big storms, hurricanes, but not these kinds of fires. With climate change, as you know, comes more extreme weather. I mean, how worried are you that the islands will start to see more and more of these types of severe events that you're not used to?

LUKE: Yeah, you know, we have experienced drought in certain areas. And so this is something that, you know, we need to assess and - how we can better serve our residents. But the focus still remains right now, is to contain the fires and provide services for the health and safety of both the residents and visitors on Maui.

MCCAMMON: Well, we certainly wish you luck with that. Sylvia Luke is Hawaii's lieutenant governor. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

LUKE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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