Hawaii‘s governor said on Thursday that the death toll from the Maui wildfires was likely to rise substantially, saying that it could eclipse the 1960 tsunami which killed 61 people.
The death toll is currently at 53, and a little earlier, with the toll at 36, Josh Green said it would rise. Officials will provide an update at 9:30pm EST on Thursday.
‘I’ll tell you, by the time this disaster is all described, I’m sure there will be dozens of people that lost their lives and billions of dollars of property that was destroyed,’ said Green.
He told CNN‘s Wolf Blitzer that 1,700 buildings were probably destroyed in the fire.
He said most buildings in Lahaina, a historic town in Maui, are completely gone, some of them still smoldering.
Only some stone buildings are still standing, he said.
‘We also are only now getting some of our search and rescue personnel into other houses,’ Green said, adding that helicopters are also surveying the area.
Destroyed sections of Lahaina are pictured on Wednesday
A man walks through the smoldering ruins of Lahaina on Wednesday
Burnt out cars are seen after the fires ravaged parts of Maui
Smoke from the fires rises above Lahaina on Thursday
The cause of the wildfire remains unknown.
The National Weather Service said dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity fueled them.
Green said it was likely to prove a worse natural disaster than the tsunami of May 1960, sparked by an earthquake in Chile.
That tragedy left 61 people dead.
Hawaii is not immune to wildfires: in 2018, a total of 30,000 acres burnt, with flames fanned by Hurricane Lane.
This time, strong winds were caused by Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the islands.
Wildfires occur every year in Hawaii, according to Thomas Smith, an environmental geography professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science – but this year’s fires are burning faster and bigger than usual.
Josh Green, the governor of Hawaii, spoke to CNN on Thursday evening and said the death toll will likely rise
Green spoke to CNN by telephone from Lahaina, a historic and popular tourist town where many of the buildings have been destroyed
A Hawaii Army National Guard member looks out the window as a CH47 Chinook performs an aerial water bucket drop on the Island of Maui on Wednesday
People watch the wildfires ripping through Lahaina on Tuesday
Much of Lahaina has been burnt to the ground in the fires that blazed overnight on Tuesday
The fire spread quickly through tinderbox-dry grass and rapidly engulfed the wooden houses of Lahaina
Locals are seen walking through Lahaina on Wednesday, the morning after the fire
Neighborhoods and businesses have been razed to the ground, and vehicles burned to a crisp across the western side of the island as the wildfires cut off most roads out of Lahaina.
The town is one of Maui’s prime attractions, drawing two million tourists each year, or about 80 per cent of the island’s visitors.
The wildfires took most of Lahaina’s residents and visitors by surprise when they broke out late on Tuesday, forcing some to run for their lives and jump into the ocean to escape the fast-moving inferno.
Nicoangelo Knickerbocker, a 21-year-old resident of Lahaina, had just awoken from a nap on Tuesday evening when he saw the fires burning through his hometown.
His mother and sister fled, while he and some and friends went to neighbors’ houses, helping people pack belongings and trying in vain to stem the flames with garden hoses.
‘It was so hot all around me, I felt like my shirt was about to catch on fire,’ he told AP from one of the four emergency shelters opened on the island.
The shelters are housing more than 2,100 people, Hawaii News Now said.
Knickerbocker heard cars and a gas station explode, and soon after fled the town with his father, bringing with them only the clothes they were wearing and the family dog.
‘It sounded like a war was going on,’ he said.
At least 20 people suffered serious burns, and several were airlifted to Oahu for medical treatment, said Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
More than 11,000 visitors were evacuated from Maui.
Though at least 16 roads were closed, the airport was operating fully, he said.
Most of the roughly 400 evacuees at the War Memorial shelter on Thursday morning had arrived in shock, with an ’empty look,’ said Dr. Gerald Tariao Montano, a pediatrician who volunteered to work a six-hour shift on Wednesday night.
‘Some haven’t fully grasped that they lost everything,’ he said.
He pleaded for donations of clothes, supplies, food, baby formula and diapers.
The fate of some of Lahaina’s cultural treasures remains unclear.
The historic 60-foot-tall banyan tree marking the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III’s 19th-century palace stood was still standing, though some of its boughs appeared charred, according to a Reuters witness.
Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii, allowing affected individuals and business owners to apply for federal housing and economic recovery grants, the White House said in a statement.