Officials overseeing the effort to identify victims of the fire said on Tuesday that 1,000 to 1,100 people remained unaccounted for and that some of the missing might never be found. Maui’s police chief, John Pelletier said at a news conference that the authorities expected to make public the names of the missing in the coming days to try to narrow the search. Maui County officials said they did not have an estimate of how many were presumed dead.
President Biden visited Hawaii on Monday and, after taking an aerial tour of the burn area in West Maui, said that “it’s going to be a long road.” But he promised, to loud applause, that the government would not only “get it done,” but “get it done the way you want it done.”
With rain forecast over Maui early this week, federal and local officials said on Saturday that they were trying to keep toxic chemicals from the Lahaina fire from spreading to the ocean. A gluelike substance will be used to bind ash and debris in place. Silt fences will be built near the coast, and hay bales will be placed around storm drains to reduce the spread of pollution.
Water in parts of West Maui is still not safe to drink because damaged pipes have allowed chemicals to seep into the water supply, the county government said.
The official death toll has reached 115 people and is expected to climb. So far, Maui County has publicly identified only 27 of the people. About 87 percent of the burn area — 3.5 square miles — has been searched by work crews and cadaver dogs.
President Biden flew over the blackened remains of Lahaina on Monday in his first visit since the deadly wildfires and declared: “The devastation is overwhelming.” As dogs combed through the last of the damaged homes and cars, officials told the president that they might not be able to identify all of the dead.
Speaking in Lahaina near a 150-year-old banyan tree that survived the fire to become a symbol of hope, Mr. Biden repeatedly referred to “the kingdom of Hawaii” as he emphasized his commitment to rebuilding. Lahaina was once the royal capital.
“We’re going to rebuild the way people of Maui want to build,” he said. “We will be respectful of the sacred grounds and the traditions,” he said.
Immediately after the devastation in Lahaina, many residents were frustrated by what they saw as the slow pace of the federal, state and local response. Much of the frustration remains. Eddy Garcia barely looked up on Monday as three military helicopters whirled past the roadside farm where he was handing out papayas, oranges and burritos to people made homeless by the fire.
“They failed us on every level,” he said of the government response. “Their red tape, their bureaucracy.”
Others were more concerned with the job at hand.
“All I care about are the people who are lost and missing, that they get found,” said Dalana Kane, who lost her home in the fire, as she was sitting in a park nearby with her family on Sunday. “I want the focus to be on the community.”
Lynn Lei, a retiree from Wisconsin who lives on the other side of Maui, said she came to Lahaina to greet the president. “I support our president,” she said. “I pray for our president. I’m not afraid to say welcome and that you’re going to see and smell what you haven’t been able to see and smell from the news.”
The death toll seems certain to keep rising.
The toll of at least 115 deaths makes the fires on Maui one of the worst natural disasters in Hawaii’s history, and the nation’s deadliest wildfires since 1918, when blazes in northeast Minnesota killed hundreds of people.
The slow pace of identifying victims has been dictated, officials said, by the large-scale destruction and by Maui’s remoteness, which complicated the arrival of out-of-state search dog teams. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Mr. Biden’s homeland security adviser, said that 40 dogs are still helping with the search of 2,000 buildings and 4,000 cars.
Displaced residents are being moved into hotels.
Emergency shelters, which housed more than 2,000 people the day after the fires broke out, are expected to be empty by the end of Monday, according to an update from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Displaced residents will stay in hotels, where they will be housed and fed through at least the spring, officials said.
County and federal aid efforts gathered pace over the last week, after frustrated residents in West Maui initially said that they were receiving far more help from an ad hoc network of charitable organizations and volunteers than they were from the government.
As of Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had given $7 million in short-term aid to nearly 2,200 households .
Kiilani Kalawe, 19, said that she was relieved to land a hotel room with her boyfriend and former Lahaina roommates. “It helps to distract our brains from everything,” she said. “At least we know we’ll be safe.”
What caused the fires?
No single cause has been determined, but experts said one possibility was that active power lines that fell in high winds had ignited a wildfire that ultimately consumed Lahaina.
Brush fires were already burning on Maui and the island of Hawaii on Aug. 8. Maui County officials informed residents that morning that a small brush fire in Lahaina had been completely contained, but they then issued an alert several hours later that described “an afternoon flare-up” that forced evacuations.
The fires on the islands were stoked by a combination of low humidity and strong mountain winds, brought by Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm hundreds of miles away.
Worsening drought conditions in recent weeks probably also contributed. Nearly 16 percent of Maui County was in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Law firms have begun filing lawsuits on behalf of victims, claiming that Hawaiian Electric, the state’s largest utility and the parent company of the power provider on Maui, is at fault for having power equipment that could not withstand heavy winds and keeping power lines electrified despite warnings of high winds.
At a news conference on Monday, Shelee Kimura, the chief executive of Hawaiian Electric, said the company did not have a shut-off program and contended that cutting the power could have created problems for people using medical equipment that runs on electricity. She also said turning off the power would have required coordination with emergency workers.
There are widespread fears that rebuilding will be difficult or impossible for many residents. State and local officials ar e considering a moratorium on sales of damaged or destroyed properties, to prevent outsiders from taking advantage of the tragedy.
And the Hawaii Tourism Authority said visitors planning to travel to West Maui within the next several months should delay their trips or find another destination. Most of the 1,000 rooms in the area have been set aside for evacuees and rescue workers.
The hit to the tourism industry presents a major challenge to rebuilding the island’s economy.
A longer-term worry is the changing climate.
The area burned by wildfires in Hawaii each year has quadrupled in recent decades. Invasive grasses that leave the islands increasingly susceptible to wildfires and climate change have worsened dry and hot conditions in the state, allowing wildfires to spread more quickly, climatologists say.
Erica Green, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Jack Healy, Tim Arango, Kellen Browning and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.
Adeel Hassan is a reporter and editor on the National Desk. He is a founding member of Race/Related, and much of his work focuses on identity and discrimination. He started the Morning Briefing for NYT Now and was its inaugural writer. He also served as an editor on the International Desk. More about Adeel Hassan
Damien Cave is the bureau chief in Sydney, Australia. He previously reported from Mexico City, Havana, Beirut and Baghdad. Since joining The Times in 2004, he has also been a deputy National editor, Miami bureau chief and a Metro reporter. More about Damien Cave