LAHAINA, Hawaii — Public schools on Maui started the process of reopening and traffic resumed on a major road in signs of recovery a week after wildfires demolished a historic town and killed at least 110 people, while the head of the island's emergency agency said he had “no regret” that sirens weren't sounded to warn people about the encroaching flames.
At least three schools untouched by flames in Lahaina, where entire neighborhoods were reduced to ash, were still being assessed after sustaining wind damage, Hawaii Department of Education superintendent Keith Hayashi said.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, but overall the campuses and classrooms are in good condition structurally, which is encouraging,” Hayashi said in a video update. “We know the recovery effort is still in the early stages, and we continue to grieve the many lives lost.”
Elsewhere crews cleaned up ash and debris at schools and tested air and water quality. Displaced students who enroll at those campuses can access services such as meals and counseling, Hayashi said. The education department is also offering counseling for students, family members and staff.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened its first disaster recovery center on Maui, “an important first step" toward helping residents get information about assistance, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said Wednesday. They also can go there for updates on aid applications.
Criswell said she would accompany President Joe Biden on Monday when he visits to survey the damage and “bring hope."
Meanwhile, transportation officials said the Lahaina Bypass Road, closed since Aug. 8, was open again, allowing residents access to some areas near the burn zone during specified hours.
Herman Andaya, Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator, defended not sounding the sirens during the fire. “We were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” he said, using the Hawaiian directional term that can mean toward the mountains or inland. “If that was the case then they would have gone into the fire.”
There are no sirens in the mountains, where the fire was spreading downhill.
Hawaii created what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 on the Big Island. Andaya said they are primarily meant to warn about tsunamis and have never been used for wildfires. The website for the Maui siren system says they may be used to alert for fires.
With the death toll rising by four since Tuesday to 110, a mobile morgue unit with additional coroners has been brought in to help. Search and recovery crews using cadaver dogs had scoured approximately 38% of the burn area by Tuesday, officials said, and the number of canine teams was increasing to more than 40.
Searchers found some of Lahaina's most vulnerable, including children, among the victims. Gov. Josh Green said this week that teams found a family of four killed in a charred car and the remains of seven family members inside a burned-down house.
Kimberly Buen was awaiting word Wednesday of her father, Maurice “Shadow” Buen, a retired sport fisherman who lived in an assisted-living facility that was destroyed.
The 79-year-old was blind in one eye, partially blind in the other and used a walker or an electric scooter to get around. In recent weeks he also had swollen feet.
“For him, there is no moving quickly,” Buen said. The stories from survivors who fled the fast-moving flames terrified her.
“If able-bodied people were having to run and jump into the ocean, I can only imagine what’s happened to the assisted living and the lower income and the elderly people that didn’t have warning, you know, or have any resources to get out,” she said.
Bill Seidl, 75, lived in the same complex. His daughter, Cassie Seidl, of Valencia, California, said her father knocked on doors before escaping.
“I think people were assuming it was just another brushfire,” she said. “I don’t think people realized, and they were not warned.”
Seidl said her father is now camping on a friend’s property in Wailuku.
On Tuesday, the county released the names of two victims: Lahaina residents Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79. They were the first of five who have been identified. Maui Police Chief John Pelletier renewed an appeal for families missing relatives to provide DNA samples.
Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina was destroyed, and Principal Tonata Lolesio said lessons would resume in the coming weeks at another Catholic school. She said it was important for the students to be with their friends, teachers and books, and not constantly thinking about the tragedy.
“I’m hoping to at least try to get some normalcy or get them in a room where they can continue to learn or just be in another environment where they can take their minds off of that,” she said.
Thousands of displaced residents were staying in shelters, hotel rooms and Airbnb units, or with friends.
The governor said Wednesday that he has instructed the state's attorney general to institute a moratorium on land transactions in the Lahaina area. Green said he has heard of people he described as not even in real estate reaching out to ask about purchasing land owned by people in the disaster area.
“My intention from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimized from a land grab,” he said.
The cause of the wildfires, already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, is under investigation. Green has warned that scores more bodies could be found.
The Lahaina fire also caused about $3.2 billion in insured property losses, damaging or destroying thousands of buildings, according to Karen Clark & Company, a prominent disaster and risk modeling company.
John Allen and his daughter surveyed an ash-gray landscape once festooned with colorful orchids and plumerias from a hill above the fire zone. His daughter wept as she pointed to the coffee shop where she used to work, and the places they used to live.
Allen moved to Maui two years ago after leaving Oakland, California, where he witnessed a destructive wildfire race up hillsides in 1991.
“No one realizes how quickly fires move,” Allen said.