By REBECCA BOONE (Associated Press)
Follow live updates about wildfires that have devastated parts of Maui in Hawaii, destroying a historic town and forcing evacuations. The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the island chain, was partly to blame for strong winds that initially drove the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.
An animal welfare organization in Hawaii says it is seeking donations to help care for hundreds of dogs, cats and other animals that have been injured or separated from their human families because of the wildfires in Maui.
The Maui Humane Society says many animals are also in need of critical care due to smoke inhalation.
The group said that it expects an inundation of lost pets. It is seeking emergency foster homes, pet food and litter, and cash donations to provide medical care for wounded animals and to keep pets in their homes.
As of Friday morning, the organization had raised via Facebook more than half of its goal of $300,000.
Authorities in Hawaii are working to evacuate people from Maui as firefighters work to contain wildfires and put out flare-ups.
The County of Maui said early Friday that 14,900 visitors left Maui by air on Thursday.
Airlines added additional flights to accommodate visitors leaving the island. The county asked visitors who want to leave to book a flight with an airline, advising that they can book flights to Honolulu and continue on another flight to their destination.
Officials are strongly discouraging nonessential travel to Maui. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency called on residents and visitors to suspend unnecessary travel to the island to make space for first responders and volunteers heading there to help residents.
Visitors on nonessential travel were being asked to leave the island, according to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority. People who plan to visit West Maui in the coming weeks were encouraged to consider rescheduling those plans, the authority said.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. surveyed the damage in Lahaina on Thursday and said it doesn’t resemble the place he knew growing up.
“The closest thing I think I can compare it to is perhaps a war zone, or maybe a bomb went off,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday. “It was cars in the street, doors open, melted to the ground. Most structures no longer exist. And from blocks and blocks of this.”
Bissen, who grew up in Maui, said he was familiar with what Lahaina looked like since his mother worked at a restaurant there, the Pioneer Inn, for 17 years.
“It doesn’t resemble anything that it looked like when I was growing up,” he said.
Regarding search and rescue efforts, he said some cadaver dogs arrived Friday.
Pope Francis sent a telegram of condolences to the people of Hawaii, offering prayers for the victims, the injured and displaced from the wildfires.
The note said Francis was saddened to learn of the destruction and “expressed solidarity with all those suffering from this tragedy, especially those whose loved ones have died or are missing.” He also offered prayers for emergency responders who are providing aid to the victims.
Professional golfer Collin Morikawa pledged to assist fire relief efforts by donating $1,000 for every birdie he makes during the next three PGA Tour events. Morikawa said his grandparents were born in Lahaina, the historic town that has been reduced to charred vehicles and ash, and he still has relatives on Maui.
Maui County confirmed Thursday night that the number of deaths has increased to 55.
Authorities said in a statement released at 9:15 p.m. that the number of fatalities increased by two in the total from the Lahaina, Pulehu and Upcountry fires.
The Lahaina fire was still active, the statement said.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a news conference Thursday afternoon that authorities are still trying to locate and identify people who died in Lahaina when the fire raced through the town.
“People whose homes are not damaged — you can come home as soon as we have recovered those who have perished,” he said. “Please allow us to complete this process.”
Search and rescue teams from California and Washington state, which are trained in disaster skills including using dogs to find human remains, have been deployed to Maui to assist with the process, officials said.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier asked for patience, prayers and perseverance.
“We have to respect that we have loved ones in that earth and we have to get them out,” he said, adding that his officers are trained to catch “bad guys” and not specifically to pull bodies from buildings.
People also need to stay away from the burn area because it remains very hazardous, according to Fire Chief Brad Ventura, who said some people have been hurt by falling telephone poles.
Bissen said 29 downed power poles with live wires still attached added to the chaos by cutting off two important roads out of Lahaina to Wailuku and the airport. Only the narrow highway toward Kahakuloa was left open, contributing to traffic jams as people attempted to flee.
Palmdale, California, resident Kimberly Buen said she can’t reach her father, Maurice “Shadow” Buen, a 79-year-old retired sport fisherman who can’t see or walk well.
Her dad has two friends who drive him to the pharmacy and help read his mail, she said, but neither can get back to Lahaina, where her father lives.
“He has no way out,” Buen said. “I’ve been checking all the lists, all the social media and following all the people at the shelters. I already called the Red Cross. And I just don’t know what else to do.”
She’s not the only one frantically searching from afar.
Marcia Reynolds, of Natick, Massachusetts, had been deciphering handwritten shelter sign-in sheets posted online for signs of her sister, 77-year-old Regina Campisi, who is recovering from surgery. She was later found safe, Reynolds said.
“We are all so relieved,” she said.
Maui officials have opened a Family Assistance Center at the Kahului Community Center for people seeking those unaccounted for. The Maui Emergency Management Agency will pass out forms and help locate the missing.
The death toll from devastating wildfires in Maui climbed to 53 Thursday, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told The Associated Press.
“We’re talking about the largest natural disaster of this generation in Hawaii,” Green said. “We are heart-sick that there are more than the original 36 who have passed.”
He expects the number to increase as crews continue to search for survivors.
Green said it looks like there have been more than 1,000 structures destroyed.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Green said after walking the town Thursday morning with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. “Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.”
Philanthropy experts recommend that people seeking to donate to Maui’s wildfire victims wait to do so.
Regine Webster, vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, says the full scope of need may not be known for up to a week as firefighters finish up their response.
She also urged potential donors to support organizations with deep local ties and community knowledge.
People can also donate through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, which vets fundraisers for those who have lost property or were injured. The organization will conduct additional verification before releasing the funds. They also deduct a transaction fee.
Images and stories coming out of the historic town of Lahaina paint an increasingly grim scene as Hawaii’s emergency responders work to rescue victims and control wildfires that have ravaged parts of Maui this week.
A flyover of the area Thursday showed normally vibrant communities had been reduced to gray and black. Street after street was nothing but rubble and foundation, said Associated Press video journalist Ty O’Neil, who was on the flight. The road was littered with charred vehicles, and an elementary school was left a mess of collapsed steel. Though pockets of wispy smoke remained, there were no active flames visible.
Tiffany Kidder Winn arrived in Lahaina on Wednesday to survey the damage. Her gift store, Whalers Locker, was destroyed along with many others on Front Street. The scene became gruesome, she said, when she came across a line of burnt-out vehicles, some with charred bodies inside.
“It looked like they were trying to get out but were stuck in traffic,” she said.
She later spotted a body leaning against a seawall. He had managed to climb over but died before he could reach the ocean while escaping flames, she surmised. Now and then, she would pause to allow her emotions and sense of horror to spill out.
“The fire came through so quickly that there was no notice,” she said. “I think a lot of people just had no time to get out.”
President Joe Biden spoke with Gov. Green by phone and offered his condolences for lives lost and land destroyed by the wildfires, the White House said.
He pledged federal disaster aid to ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or who’s home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.”
Biden promised to streamline requests for federal assistance and said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on Maui. He also ordered all available Coast Guard and Air Force personnel on the island to work with the Hawaii National Guard.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii. But not just our prayers. Every asset we have will be available to them,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, the White House announced the president had approved a disaster declaration for the state, clearing the way for federal aid. The funding will include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover damaged uninsured property and other programs for Maui residents and businesses suffering losses.
Officials are still trying to get a handle on the fires’ progress but know they’re not fully contained, Hawaii Emergency Management spokesman Adam Weintraub said.
“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” he said. “Our search and rescue teams from Maui and supporting agencies are not able to do their job until the fire lines are secure.”
Associated Press journalist Mark Thiessen contributed to this story from Anchorage, Alaska; Ty O’Neil from Lahaina, Maui; Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Claire Rush and Jennifer Kelleher from Honolulu; Christopher Megerian contributed from Salt Lake City, Utah; Bobby Caina Calvan from New York City; Caleb Jones from Concord, Massachusetts; and Janie Har from San Francisco.
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