MIXED reactions and descriptions of what hit Lahaina, morning of Tuesday, August 8, were in world news. Some compared the brushfire that was quickly fueled by gusty afternoon winds exceeding 130kph to a muted bomb that burst above the historic place. Others said it looked worse than a war zone.
The Lahaina wildfire has brought unbelievable devastation, heartbreaks, loss of lives and property. There was drought over Lahaina’s grassland as shown by its very dry appearance. This was why it easily caught fire. Many described it as the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.
It was actually a death trap located between the proverbial “devil and the deep blue sea.” Literally, the coastal city of Lahaina, a community of 13,000 that was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom was caught between rampaging wildfires and the cold waters of the scenic Pacific Ocean.
Gusty winds were blowing at more than 80 mph or at more than a mile per minute; hence, residents and tourists who were about to be overrun by fire had to flee for their dear lives but there was nowhere to go except dive into the ocean.
Closed roads and bumper to bumper traffic that resulted after smoke and wildfires were seen to be coming closer forced the people to abandon their cars and houses, and jumped into the waters of the Pacific to escape from getting burned alive.
The Lahaina natural inferno, so to speak, made small the biggest brush fires that recently hit California, Canada and a country in Europe. More so, it dwarfed the disaster brought about by Yolanda in Leyte and the damages that resulted after the war between our soldiers and our Muslim brothers in Marawi City.
A heartbreaking scenario was when rescue volunteers found a family of four burned inside their car. They reported that two persons seated at the backseat were children. The family was apparently fleeing when they were caught by wildfire. And while firemen were fighting the fires, they were thinking if any member of their families were victims also.
As of last Thursday; reports claimed that 2,700 homes were burned, four more people were confirmed killed, bringing the death toll in the Lahaina wildfire to 110 as some 1,300 remained missing. The death toll was rising still and ultimately could go well over 100 as searchers find more cadavers.
Governor Josh Green, a medical doctor, announced that 40 dogs were fielded to search for cadavers. But the predicament facing the officials of local governments of Hawaii, the families and relatives of victims, medical workers and the rescue team was how to match the identity of the cadavers.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said that 38 percent of the area scorched by Maui wildfires has been searched as police and military teams continue to look for remains of victims of the fire. This, as the police chief pressed for “prayers and perseverance”.
He repeatedly pleaded for patience as teams painstakingly searched the ashes in the coastline city for the remains of scores of victims. What follows after the bodies of victims are found is the emotionally draining procedure of identifying victims and notifying relatives. The police chief urged people to submit DNA samples to help identify family members.
Every relative and friend wants their missing family members or persons killed in the fire to be identified fast and included in the death toll. With that, the police chief said, “you want it fast, then we are going to do it right.”
To avoid unnecessary delays in the search and rescue operations, the authorities closed access roads to prevent people from entering ground zero who might disturb the rubble and ashes where cadavers may be found, making it more difficult to identify the remains. Here in the Philippines, “uzis” or usiseros and police alike trample on anything.
In one news conference early this week, the frustration caused by the pressure to quickly find and identify victims showed on the faces of the Maui authorities in charge of search and rescue operations.
Police chief Pelletier said, “It’s not just ash on your clothing when you take it off. It’s our loved ones,” obviously directing his anger to media teams and curious private persons trampling through the fire zone and the ashes that contain the remains of victims.
“It’s ugly!” Governor Green had this to say over journalists insisting to enter ground zero in order to extract first-hand information when immediate family members are being turned back. The burned areas had to be locked down to preserve the sites. So, it takes everyone to manage an incident of wide magnitude.
There were reports that no sirens sounded and no evacuation orders were issued. Maui Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Administrator Herman Andaya explained sirens were primarily used for tsunamis that is why they are located on the coastlines.
The public is expected to seek higher ground once the sirens are sounded. In the guidelines, if you are in a low-lying area, evacuate to higher ground. Had we sounded the sirens that night, people could have headed to the mountains and could have gone into the fire, he said. That was the reason why the MEMA did not sound off the sirens.
The protocol is to use wireless broadcast equipment, radio and televisions. But then, the electric power was out. One more thing, there are no sirens on the mountains. Despite MEMA’s explanation and Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen’s appeal to stop finger-pointing, there were some people who were using the incident as a “political base.”
Meanwhile, authorities limited entry to the impact zone to the Red Cross, police and military, and the FEMA. But over the weekend, Maui officials opened the road and access to the burned areas to restore psychological normalcy for people who owned houses in the area and had missing relatives.
Entry into the areas by house owners however should be with the assistance of police and military men to help maintain orderliness as they would be allowed to go where they need to, not where they want to.
A lesson that all should keep in mind aside from the way search and rescue operations were handled was how Hawaii officials and the local governments managed the collection and distribution of relief donations.
Mayor Bissen, who missed many nights of sleep as shown by his eye bugs, was heard making instructions for donors to stop dropping donations at evacuation centers unless there were direct recipients. The distribution of relief goods was well-organized as drop centers for donations was centralized.
Listed on walls of the drop centers as immediate needs were food, water, medicines and charging supplies. The mayor said to “hold off clothing donations” in the meantime. And yes, indigenous peoples on mountain farms in Hawaii donated sacks of sweet camote.