KAHULUI, Hawaii (AFP) — US President Joe Biden will head to Hawaii next week to meet with survivors of a horrific wildfire and first responders still hunting for bodies, the White House said Wednesday as the first victims of the tragedy were named.
Last week’s fire leveled the historic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui and was the deadliest in the United States in more than a century. The death toll of 110 is expected to rise over the coming days.
Only five victims have been identified so far, two of whom were named by Maui County officials as Robert Dyckman, 74, and 79-year-old Buddy Jantoc, both from Lahaina.
Jantoc’s family described him as a musician who had toured with Carlos Santana.
“I’m hoping he was asleep,” his daughter-in-law Shari Jantoc said, according to The New York Times. “I hope to God he did not suffer.”
A team of experts in forensic pathology, some of whom worked in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, have flown to Maui, as efforts are stepped up to identify remains, some of which are charred beyond recognition.
Authorities on Maui have begun collecting DNA samples from people whose relatives are missing. But the presence on the holiday island of so many tourists was a further complicating factor, and could necessitate a much larger network for capturing samples, said Adam Weintraub of Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
“I’ve already heard from people who say they want to submit DNA, but they can’t get over to Maui,” he told reporters.
“We’re going to have to establish some kind of system where if you have family who are vacationing on Maui and you haven’t been able to contact them, you can go to your local police station” to give a sample.
The task of finding victims is slow, arduous work, even with the use of dogs specially trained to locate cadavers.
“This is a really difficult search operation,” Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters on Wednesday.
“The dogs have to navigate the heat. They have to deal with issues with their paws walking through glass and debris and in these conditions. The dogs require frequent rest.
“I want to be honest with everyone: this is also going to be a very long and hard recovery.”
Officials have repeatedly cautioned that the final death toll might not be known for weeks — but is expected to be significantly higher.
Biden ‘committed’ to Hawaii aid
The White House said Biden and his wife, Jill, will “meet with first responders, survivors, as well as federal, state, and local officials” in Maui on Monday.
“I remain committed to delivering everything the people of Hawaii need as they recover from this disaster,” the president wrote on social media.
Biden had quickly declared a major disaster in Hawaii after last week’s inferno, allowing the deployment of emergency assistance from the federal government, and has talked several times with Hawaii Governor Josh Green.
But he has been criticized by the Republican opposition for what they characterized as a timid response to the fires.
The White House said emergency officials had advised that “search and recovery efforts are expected to be at a stage early next week to allow for a presidential visit.”
Green, the governor, on Tuesday warned against any attempt at a land grab in the devastated remains of Lahaina, as locals fret that deep-pocketed developers might take advantage of people’s desperation and try to buy up plots.
Meanwhile, residents desperate to get back to check on the homes they fled have expressed frustration at bans that have prevented them from getting into Lahaina.
Officials warned of the dangers of unstable buildings and potential airborne toxic chemicals in the area.
Questions are being asked about authorities’ preparedness and response to the catastrophe.
Some fire hydrants ran dry in the early stages of the wildfire, and multiple warning systems either failed or were not activated.
A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Hawaiian Electric, the state’s biggest power firm, claiming the company should have shut off its power lines to lower the risk of fire.