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Maui latest: Death toll rises, schools reopen, new storm threats

Crews have started to clear up ash and debris from some schools while also examining air and water quality.
Posted at 11:59 AM, Aug 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-17 11:59:04-04

The death toll continues to climb from the catastrophic wildfire that incinerated a historic island community in Hawaii and has now killed 111 people.

In response to the significant loss of life, makeshift morgues are being deployed to manage the situation.

The main road in and out of Lahaina, the town hit hardest by the fires, reopened to allow residents to see the heartbreaking damage.

Residents queued in lines of cars, eager to reach their homes for the first time. However, their efforts were thwarted by police-enforced blockades preventing access to neighborhoods. Despite standing half a mile away, they gazed toward the town, aiming to salvage belongings and find a sense of closure through the search.

Carelle Calvan and her boyfriend Mike have a clear view of their house, yet they remain unable to reach it.

"Whenever I think, ‘Oh, I have to go home to Lahaina,’ then I have to snap back, and it’s like, 'Oh, we don’t have a home in Lahaina," said Calvan.

The hurricane-force winds blew the flames directly toward their home.

She felt a "really huge gust of wind with heat in it. So I looked, and I noticed the fire was really close by," said Calvan.

She called 911 several times, pleading for a fire truck, but the operator hung up on her.

"They did not tell me to evacuate," said Calvan. "I knew it was time to go when the fire got way too close to the house."

While she’s grateful for her family's safety, Calvan is concerned for a number of her coworkers who are still unaccounted for.

Throughout their community, cadaver dogs are diligently scouring for the remains of those who couldn't flee the disaster. The search is picking up pace, but it’s relying on the pace set by the dogs' efforts.

While additional dogs arrived Wednesday to assist, the dogs must navigate through the intense heat, and their paws are affected by walking on glass and debris.

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Meanwhile, Calvan and her family don’t understand why the sirens didn’t go off; she says they’re tested all the time. She also wants to know why the power wasn’t turned off.

Similar concerns resonate with Shane Treu, who witnessed the winds causing a power line to fall near his residence.

"It was just arcing away on the ground, landed right in dry grass, so sparks, and then there was a fire," said Treu.

While Treu's own house managed to escape the flames, a mere 500 yards downwind, every single house was ravaged by the fire.

The electric company, Hawaiian Electric, says its system wasn’t designed with a shutoff; a class action lawsuit has been filed against the company.

Now that their town is gone, Calvan and her boyfriend have decided to leave the island.

"It feels like I don't know this place anymore. It's different, like you don't feel family. You don't feel the power of Ohana, I guess, the love; you know, everyone is so close knit together. It just feels empty," said Calvan.

But for those who have decided to stay, normal life has started again, as public schools on Maui have started the process of reopening.

"There’s still a lot of work to do, but overall, the campuses and classrooms are in good condition structurally, which is encouraging," said Keith Hayashi, the superintendent of the Hawaii Department of Education. "We know the recovery effort is still in the early stages, and we continue to grieve the many lives lost."

Crews are clearing ash and debris from schools that were not touched by the fires while also examining air and water quality, the Associated Press reported.

However, the cleanup and search and rescue operations could run into some obstacles as the wind intensifies due to Tropical Storm Greg's movement south of the island. Additionally, Tropical Storm Fernanda is approaching even closer to the islands, anticipated to be just south of the Big Island over the weekend.

These storms are set to bring stronger winds and heavier rainfall, which isn't conducive to search efforts. Officials have said that the search will have to continue as the winds and rain pick up.