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Hawaii officials still don’t know the fate of more than 800 people after the Lahaina wildfires CBC News

Two weeks after the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century ravaged the Maui community of Lahaina, more than 800 people are still missing, officials said.

It's a staggering number that poses major challenges for officers trying to figure out how many of them died and how many may have fled to safety but didn't check in.

Something similar happened in 2018 after a wildfire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California. Authorities there eventually published a list of missing people in the local newspaper, a decision that helped identify numerous people who had made it out alive and were listed as missing. Within a month, the list dropped from 1,300 names to just a dozen.

Maui authorities chose not to release their list because it's unclear whether privacy regulations would prevent them from doing so, said Adam Weintraub, spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. There are also concerns of further traumatizing the families of those now missing but who may turn out to be dead.

“The names and information regarding the missing persons are not being released or made publicly available at this time,” a Maui County spokesman said via text message.

There were 115 confirmed deaths as of Monday, according to the Maui Police Department.

WATCH l Finding Traumatic Survivors for First Responders:

Rescuers on Maui are haunted by the sights and smells of the aftermath of a wildfire

The day-long search in the rubble for victims of the deadly forest fires on Maui demands physical and mental stress from the rescue workers. Some say they cannot sleep after the horrific images they have seen.

The FBI's Honolulu office is assisting Maui officials in their search for missing persons, including by collecting DNA samples from relatives, the agency said in a statement last week.

The number of missing people, while in the hundreds, is down from the estimated 2,000 just days ago.

Painstaking process

The American Red Cross said it is compiling its own list of people missing — separate from law enforcement — based on inquiries to its call center and information gathered by its field teams, spokesman Daniel Parra said. The organization has also entered into a data sharing agreement with federal, state and local governments to help with reunions.

To date, the American Red Cross has successfully completed about 2,400 of the more than 3,000 applications it has received for reunion or welfare updates, Parra said. A completed request means, among other things, that the organization has located a missing person or verified the status of a person, for example, in a medical facility.

Scraps of metal and wood can be seen on the floor under a cloudy blue sky.
Fire damage broke out on Front Street in Lahaina on Monday. It is estimated that around 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the Maui wildfires. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

To find people, the organization checks names against shelter registration lists, calls hospitals to see if the person has been admitted as a patient, and scours social media, among other things, Parra said.

Social outreach like this will be crucial, as identifying human remains after wildfires — and confirming whether those missing are deceased — can be an arduous and lengthy process.

Fire experts believe there may not be any remains left to identify some individuals through DNA testing. Nearly 22 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, about 1,100 of the 3,000 killed have no identified remains.

Dozens of dead have yet to be publicly announced

Vyto Babrauskas, president of fire safety research consultancy Fire Science and Technology Inc., said damage from rubble clearance and excavation can also complicate recovery efforts. It is estimated that around 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed.

“It's such an extreme catastrophe,” said Babrauskas. “It is so rare that such counting and identification is necessary.”

Many of the few dozen confirmed dead so far are seniors.

According to the US Fire Administration, people over the age of 65 have the greatest relative risk of dying in a fire: 2.6 times that of the general population. Research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Fire Administration attributes this trend to greater frailty and difficulty escaping among seniors.

In the distance, a man and woman wearing sunglasses can be seen walking down a street with extensive damage in the form of burned vehicles and debris in the background.
President Joe Biden and his wife tour areas devastated by Maui's wildfires on Monday. The government has issued more than $8 million in support over the past two weeks. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

U.S. President Joe Biden and his wife Jill got an up-close look at the devastation Monday, seeing block after block, hollowed-out houses and other buildings, charred cars, scorched trees and piles of debris as his motorcade drove through Lahaina.

The Biden administration has distributed more than $8.5 million in relief funds to about 8,000 affected families, about 40 percent of that total rental assistance, and on Monday appointed a chief coordinator for the federal response to the Maui wildfires, who is the intended to monitor long-term recovery The area.

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