With search efforts in Lahaina nearly complete, authorities turn attention to clearing toxic debris

There are growing concerns that FEMA's disaster relief fund could slip into the red as Florida braces for another severe weather event. (CNN, WJLA, KGMB, KHNL,
Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 10:05 PM CDT
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow/Gray News) - Search-and-recovery teams have nearly completed their work in Lahaina, Hawaii, where specialized personnel armed with cadaver dogs worked for weeks to comb through the remains of burned-out structures.

Authorities are now turning their attention to removing toxic debris and stabilizing mountains of ash in the community so they don’t end up in the sea.

Environmental Protection Agency crews are already on the ground in Lahaina to begin removing hazardous materials, from pesticides and solvent to gas and asbestos. That work will bring Maui County one step closer to allowing residents to return to their destroyed properties, but there’s no timeline for when.

Once toxic materials are removed, the EPA plans to apply a biodegradable material aimed at preventing ash from flowing or blowing into the sea. A larger-scale debris removal effort will then begin on the federal government’s funding and with permission from property owners, officials said.

“The county will champion the interests of our community once this area is deemed safe,” Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “There will be specific steps for residents to gain access. We hope that this will move as quick as possible.”

FILE - Charred remains of homes are visible following a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 22,...
FILE - Charred remains of homes are visible following a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 22, 2023. When the winds of Hurricane Dora lashed Maui Aug. 8, they struck bare electrical lines the Hawaiian electric utility had left exposed to the elements.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Also on Tuesday, the state and Maui County announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was selected to lead debris removal efforts in Lahaina, now home to the nation’s deadliest wildfire since 1918.

The timeline for this phase is still being developed and Maui County says it will provide more information to residents in the coming days, including whether they can retrieve belongings.

The transition to debris removal comes as hundreds are still missing after the Lahaina wildfire.

As of Tuesday, the death toll from the wildfire remains at 115, where it has stood for several days.

Of those, 51 have been identified, many with the help of DNA technology.

Maui’s police chief and others have sought to prepare the community for the difficult reality that many victims may never be recovered from the ashes, but instead may be presumed dead.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said at least 110 missing persons reports have formally been filed with his department. Of those, there are 50 open cases.

Meanwhile, the “validated” list of the missing remains at 388, while an unvalidated list includes more than 1,000 names.

Pelletier said the only recovery operations still ongoing in Lahaina are happening in the water, where county and FBI teams are working together to look for remains.

So far, no bodies have been found.