Maui wildfire death toll rises to 106 as teams search to find and identify the dead

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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Survivors of deadly wildfires on Maui contended with intermittent power and unreliable cell service as they sought help rebuilding their lives. Teams of people, meanwhile, labored to find the dead and identify them.

With the death toll already at 106, a mobile morgue unit with additional coroners arrived in Hawaii on Tuesday to help with the grim task of sorting through remains. The governor warned that a new storm could complicate the search and recovery.

READ MORE: Videos of downed power lines before deadly Maui wildfire raises questions about how it started

A week after a wildfire all but incinerated the historic town of Lahaina, communication on the island was still difficult. Some people walked periodically to a seawall, where phone connections were strongest, to make calls. Flying low off the coast, a single-prop airplane used a loudspeaker to blare information about where to get water and supplies.

Local survivors of the Lahaina wildfire gather for a community dinner in Lahaina on the island of Maui

Local survivors of the Lahaina wildfire gather for a community dinner as they take care of each other after much of their town was ravaged in Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 14, 2023. REUTERS/Jorge Garcia

Thousands of people are staying in shelters, in hotel rooms and Airbnb units, or with friends. Around 2,000 homes and businesses still don’t have electricity, Maui County wrote Tuesday night, after the power company restored supply to over 10,000 customers. The fire also contaminated water supplies in many areas.

Victoria Martocci, who lost her scuba business and a boat, planned to travel to her storage unit Wednesday to stash documents and keepsakes given to her by a friend whose house burned.

“These are things she grabbed, the only things she could grab, and I want to keep them safe for her,” Martocci said.

The county also released the names of two victims: Lahaina residents Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79. They are the first of five who have been identified so far.

Members of FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams comb through destroyed Lahaina neighborhoods

Members of FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams Washington Task Force 1 and Nevada Task Force 1 continue searching through destroyed neighborhoods in the Maui city of Lahaina, Hawaii, U.S. August 13, 2023. Dominick Del Vecchio/FEMA/Handout via REUTERS.

Crews with dogs are rushing to secure remains, Gov. Josh Green said, ahead of possible storms forecast for the weekend.

“I want the rain, ironically, but that’s why we’re racing right now to do all the recovery that we can, because winds or heavy rain in that disaster setting … will make it even harder to get the final determination of who we lost,” he said.

Crews using cadaver dogs have scoured approximately 30 percent of the burn area, according to officials. The wildfires are already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, and Green had previously warned that scores more bodies could be found.

“Many of the fatalities were on the road, down by the sea,” Green told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday. “So the numbers will increase, but they will not increase — we hope — to … catastrophic proportions. We just don’t know yet.”

The governor added that officials are considering cutting off power during the storms as a precautionary measure.

The local power utility has faced criticism for leaving power on as strong winds from a passing hurricane buffeted a parched area last week, and one video shows a cable dangling in a charred patch of grass, surrounded by flames, in the early moments of the wildfire. The cause of the wildfires, some of which are still burning, is still under investigation.

WATCH: Why people in Maui were caught off guard by the deadly wildfires

Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. President and CEO Shelee Kimura said many factors go into a decision to cut power, including the impact on people who rely on specialized medical equipment and concerns that a shutoff in the fire area would have knocked out water pumps.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier renewed an appeal for families with missing relatives to provide DNA samples.

Federal officials sent a mobile morgue unit with coroners, pathologists and technicians to Hawaii to help identify the dead, said Johnathan Greene, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The morgue unit included 22 tons of supplies and equipment such as mortuary examination tables and X-ray units, Greene said.

Gov. Green told Hawaii News Now that children are among the dead.

“When the bodies are smaller, we know it’s a child,” he said, describing some of the sites being searched as “too much to share or see from just a human perspective.”

Fire damage in Lahaina on the Hawian Island of Maui

A general view of a damaged structure in the fire ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The blaze that swept into Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000. That fire has been 85 percent contained, according to the county. Another blaze known as the Upcountry fire was 75 percent contained as of Tuesday evening.

The Lahaina fire caused about $3.2 billion in insured property losses, according to calculations by Karen Clark & Company, a prominent disaster and risk modeling company. That doesn’t count damage to uninsured property. The firm said more than 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed by flames, with about 3,000 damaged by fire, smoke or both.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he and first lady Jill Biden would visit Hawaii “as soon as we can,” but he doesn’t want his presence to interrupt recovery and cleanup efforts. During a stop in Milwaukee to highlight his economic agenda, Biden pledged that “every asset they need will be there for them.”

Lahaina resident Kekoa Lansford helped rescue people as the flames swept through town. Now he is collecting stories from survivors, hoping to create a timeline of what happened.

The scene was haunting. “Horrible, horrible,” Lansford said. “You ever seen hell in the movies? That is what it looked like. Fire everywhere. Dead people.”

Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Weber from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Bobby Caina Calvan in Kihei, Hawaii; Haven Daley in Kalapua, Hawaii; Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri; and Darlene Superville and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed. Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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