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Leaders in Hawaii call the wildfires the worst natural disaster in state history

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The wildfires on the island of Maui are changing lives.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hawaii's governor says the fast-moving fires that have killed at least 55 people have also destroyed hundreds of homes. We've been reporting this week on the fires that swept through a historic town and far beyond. Residents have to go somewhere in both the short- and longer-term.

MCCAMMON: Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman is following the story. Hi, Bill.

BILL DORMAN, BYLINE: Hi. Aloha, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So how are authorities helping the people who fled the fire zone?

DORMAN: Short term, the focus is on sheltering those who need it and trying to find the missing and connecting families. Also, basic supplies, from water to fuel, are becoming an issue. It's a story, as we've been saying all week, about the west side of Maui Island. That's where people lost lives and where the most destruction is taking place. You know, the word devastation is one you keep hearing. And there's a profound sadness with all of these losses, but especially the loss of life. The governor says the burning of all these homes makes housing a priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH GREEN: We are going to need to house thousands of people. It's our intent to initially seek 2,000 rooms so that we can get housing for people. That will mean reaching out to all of our hotels and those in the community.

DORMAN: The governor asked people across the state that if you have space in your home, if you have the capacity to take someone in from West Maui, please do. The governor also spoke about President Biden issuing a federal disaster declaration for Hawaii. A lot of that money is going to be targeted at housing. It's a critical need.

MCCAMMON: So are some people having to leave the island entirely?

DORMAN: Yes, those evacuations are continuing, buses moving people from West Maui to the main airport in Kahului, which is in the more central part of the island. And then the flights from there, whether those are tourists heading back to the continental United States or residents, many of whom are coming to Honolulu here on the island of Oahu. As for residents who remain, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen talked about that today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BISSEN: I did want to also speak to the folks whose homes were not damaged. And I know the question on your mind is, when can I get back to my home? Just as soon as we can try to provide a certainty that we have recovered those that have perished. That's our goal right now.

DORMAN: It's a grim goal. But as we move into Friday here in Hawaii, it's another painful day. And very difficult work is continuing.

MCCAMMON: Really grim. Is it possible that some people are still alive and stuck in the burning areas?

DORMAN: Possible they could just be uncounted. You know, teams are working on this, but it's very difficult. Parts of West Maui are simply burned to the ground, especially in the town of Lahaina. Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, we have a scar on the face of Maui that's going to last a long time. And while it might sound relatively simple, the question of how many people are missing is just an excruciating one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PELLETIER: Honestly, we don't know. And here's the challenge. There is no power. There's no internet. There's no radio coverage. Our pac-sets, we're having a hard time getting through on that.

DORMAN: Those challenges of communication a big reason it's so difficult to nail down numbers, how many lives lost, how many buildings burned to the ground. And clearly, that's not the priority. There are people to help, needs to be met. And the people who did not survive need to be treated with respect.

MCCAMMON: Bill Dorman with Hawaii Public Radio, thanks so much.

DORMAN: Thank you. Aloha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Bill Dorman