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Biden says Hawaii will have constant support in wake of deadly wildfires


By Jonathan Allen and Brendan O’Brien

KIHEI, Hawaii (Reuters) -President Joe Biden vowed on Thursday that the U.S. government would remain steadfast in its commitment to help the people of Maui recover, rebuild and grieve after last week’s deadly wildfires that incinerated the historic resort town of Lahaina.

The Aug. 8 wildfires killed at least 111 and hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.

In a brief video aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Biden said the federal government had already sent hundreds of emergency personnel, thousands of meals, and essential supplies such as cots and blankets to the devastated town.

“We will be with you for as long as it takes, I promise you,” the president said. “Already from the darkness and the smoke and the ash, we see the light of hope and strength.”

Biden highlighted the efforts of first responders, many of whom have been personally affected by the wildfires. He praised search teams who have worked around the clock.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Hawaii on Monday to survey the devastation left behind by the inferno and meet with first responders, survivors and federal, state and local officials.

In other developments:

— Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said in a written statement on Thursday that she will appoint a private, third-party agency to investigate and review how state and county officials responded to the deadly wildfire.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green has tasked Lopez with carrying out a comprehensive review of actions taken before, during and after the fire, and the third-party investigation will be a part of that effort. The review will likely take months, Lopez wrote.

— Hawaiian Electric Industries, which faces questions about the role that its equipment might have played in the wildfires, saw its shares extend a record slump. They briefly hit their lowest level since 1985 on Thursday and closed down 15.4%. The shares have shed about 63% this week.

Class-action lawsuits were filed against the utility this week. The lawsuits claim Hawaiian Electric was responsible for the fires after failing to shut off power lines despite warnings from the National Weather Service that high winds could blow those lines down and spark wildfires.

The cause of the wildfires is under investigation.

— Hundreds of volunteers have come to the aid of displaced Lahaina residents, many of whom are now sleeping in Maui County-run shelters, at the homes of friends and relatives and in donated hotel rooms and vacation rentals.

Volunteers are donating supplies, helping distribute food and water and providing emotional support to many of their fellow Maui residents.

“We’re all one big family in Maui, we call it ‘ohana,’” said Louis Romero, a 55-year-old retired battalion chief for the island’s fire department, who is helping run a crisis-relief hub. “You don’t have to be blood relatives to consider you family. That’s the Hawaiian way. We help each other.”

— Maui County Emergency Management administrator Herman Andaya defended the agency’s decision to not sound sirens during the wildfires.

Andaya said using sirens that typically alert people to tsunamis might have led people to evacuate toward the danger as the wildfire approached from hillsides east of town, he told reporters on Wednesday.

— Teams, led by 40 cadaver dogs, have been conducting a block-by-block search that, as of Wednesday, had covered 38% of the disaster area, where some 2,200 buildings were destroyed.

— Identification of human remains that have been found has been slow, partly because of the fire’s intensity. The first two people killed in the wildfires to be identified were Robert Dyckman, 74; and Buddy Jantoc, 79. Early on Thursday morning, Maui officials identified three more victims as Melva Benjamin, 71; Virginia Dofa, 90; and Alfredo Galinato, 79. All of the identified victims thus far were Lahaina residents.

“We are grateful to finally hear about our father’s remains but saddened that he has not joined us in safety,” Galinato’s son, Joshua, said in a Facebook post.

— Hawaii senior water manager Kaleo Manuel was transferred to a different position, according to a statement by the state’s land and natural resources department, after reports he stalled on requests by a real estate development company to release agricultural water to help fight the Lahaina fire until the blaze was established in a wildland area.

Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Reources (DLNR) said in a late Wednesday statement that the agency was “re-deploying” Manuel to “a different DLNR division.” The statement said the move was to allow Maui’s water management agency to focus on wildfire recovery work.

“This deployment does not suggest that First Deputy Manuel did anything wrong,” the statement said.

The Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action said Hawaii’s government was using Manuel as a scapegoat for the Lahaina fire and an earlier release of the stream water into reservoirs would have made no difference as they are not connected to Lahaina’s hydrant system and it was too windy for helicopters to fly and scoop water out of them.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Maui; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Julia Harte in New York, Eric Beech in Washington, Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Jasper Ward in Washington, and Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; editing by Frank McGurty, Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Sandra Maler)

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