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Maui will have unwavering support after wildfires, Biden says


By Jonathan Allen and Brendan O’Brien

LAHAINA, 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

In a brief video aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Biden said the federal government has already taken sent hundreds of emergency personnel, thousands of meals, and essential supplies such as cots and blankets to the devastated town, where some 2,200 buildings were destroyed on Aug. 8.

“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 looking for hundreds of people still missing. Local volunteers have delivered aid by fishing boats and local chefs have prepared meals for displaced families, he noted.

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:

— Hawaiian Electric Industries shares extended a record slump, briefly hitting their lowest since 1985 in early trading on Thursday. The utility faces questions about the role that its equipment might have played in the Maui wildfires.

This week, proposed class-action lawsuits were filed against the utility. 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 fast-spreading wildfires.

The cause of the wildfires is under investigation. Power has since been restored to the island of 75,000 homes and businesses.

— 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 who lost their homes and all of their belongings.

“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 decide against sounding sirens during the wildfires as questions intensify over why residents were given little or no warning.

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.

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded,” Andaya said on Wednesday.

“Had we sounded the siren that night, we’re afraid that people would have gone mauka (to the mountainside) and if that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire,” he added.

— Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for as the death toll rose to 111. Teams, led by 20 cadaver dogs, have conducted a block-by-block search that had covered 38% of the disaster area as of Wednesday. The number of dogs would soon double to 40, Governor Josh Green said on Wednesday.

— 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.

— As officials work to identify the deceased, harrowing stories about those injured or killed have emerged from relatives and friends. Among them is Laurie Allen, who was burned over two-thirds of her body when the car she was escaping in was blocked by a downed tree, forcing her to run across a burning field, her family said in a GoFundMe post.

She is burned to the bone in some places, but doctors at a burn center in Oahu hope she will regain partial use of her arms, the post said.

“The Burn Team has expressed more than once that she shouldn’t be alive!” a relative wrote on the page.

— Residents have been outraged by the tourists enjoying Maui’s tropical beaches while search-and-rescue teams trawl ruins and ocean waters for victims of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Maui; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Julia Harte in New York, Eric Beech in Washington and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California; editing by Frank McGurty, Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)

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