In a tragic turn of events, Maui County officials have released the names of 388 individuals who are currently unaccounted for since the devastating wildfires that occurred on August 8th. This marks the first official list of missing persons to be issued since the fires erupted. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has stated that this list only includes individuals who have been validated as unaccounted for based on specific criteria. These criteria include having their first and last names reported, as well as a verified contact number for the person who reported them missing.
Amidst the ongoing efforts to determine the number of missing individuals, the FBI had previously estimated that there were approximately 1,000 to 1,100 names on a preliminary list. However, the current list consists of 388 validated missing persons. In a heartbreaking update, Maui County officials have identified eight additional victims, bringing the total number of identified individuals to 46. Among the identified victims is 7-year-old Tony Takafua, who tragically becomes the first confirmed child victim of the wildfires.
The devastating fires, which claimed the lives of at least 115 people, have become the deadliest in the United States in over a century. Officials fear that the death toll will continue to rise as search and rescue efforts continue. The fires have left a community in mourning and have raised concerns about the high number of child victims.
Earlier on Thursday, Maui County took legal action against the Hawaiian Electric Company in response to the fires that ravaged Lahaina. The county alleges that the utility failed to shut off power despite extreme weather conditions, including high winds and dry vegetation. Witnesses and video evidence suggest that sparks from power lines ignited fires as utility poles snapped in the strong winds caused by a passing hurricane. Hawaiian Electric has expressed disappointment in the county's decision to pursue legal action while the investigation is still ongoing.
The lawsuit filed by Maui County claims that the destruction could have been prevented if the utility had properly maintained and repaired their electrical transmission lines, utility poles, and equipment, as well as kept vegetation properly trimmed to prevent contact with power lines. The county argues that the utility was aware of the potential dangers posed by high winds, which could cause power poles to topple, power lines to collapse, and vegetation to ignite rapidly. Additionally, the region had been experiencing a drought, leaving the vegetation dangerously dry and prone to ignition.
The devastating impact of the fires was witnessed by residents, as video footage captured the moment a downed power line ignited dry grasses. Firefighters initially contained the fire, but due to the overwhelming number of emergency calls, they had to attend to other incidents, allowing the fire to reignite and quickly approach downtown Lahaina. The situation was exacerbated by downed power lines and roadblocks, causing traffic congestion along Lahaina's Front Street. Faced with flaming debris and suffocating black smoke, numerous residents resorted to jumping into the water in a desperate attempt to escape.
Search and rescue teams, equipped with snorkel gear, have been diligently scouring a 4-mile stretch of water for any signs of those who may have perished. Meanwhile, crews continue their arduous search for remains amongst the ashes of destroyed businesses and residential buildings. Despite the unimaginable tragedy, Hawaiian Electric has expressed its commitment to supporting the people of Maui and Maui County during this difficult time.
Hawaiian Electric, a for-profit utility serving 95% of Hawaii's electric customers, is also facing multiple lawsuits. Lahaina residents, as well as some of the utility's investors, have filed lawsuits accusing Hawaiian Electric of fraud and negligence, alleging inadequate wildfire prevention and safety measures. Maui County's lawsuit highlights that other utilities, such as Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric, have protocols in place for shutting off power during severe windstorms. The county asserts that if Hawaiian Electric had implemented a similar power shutoff plan, the severe losses and destruction could have been avoided.
The county's lawsuit seeks compensation for the damage caused to public property and resources in Lahaina and nearby Kula. According to Maui County officials, the wildfires destroyed more than 2,200 structures and resulted in at least $5.5 billion worth of damage. This legal action is reminiscent of previous cases where utilities have been held accountable for devastating fires. In June, PacifiCorp, an electric utility in Oregon, was found responsible for causing fires during Labor Day weekend in 2020 and was ordered to pay millions of dollars to affected homeowners. Pacific Gas & Electric also faced significant consequences after their equipment caused a fire in Paradise, California, in 2018.
As the search for missing individuals continues and the community grapples with the immense loss, the Maui County officials have emphasized that the death toll is expected to rise beyond the current 115 confirmed fatalities. The wildfires have left a profound impact on the island, and the road to recovery will undoubtedly be a long and challenging one.
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