Maui wildfire death toll surpasses 100; mobile morgue arrives to assist in identification of dead

A mobile morgue unit arrived on August 15 to help Hawaii officials working painstakingly to identify the remains of people killed in wildfires that ravaged Maui, as the death rose above 100 and teams intensified the search for more dead in neighborhoods reduced to ash.

Governor Josh Green announced the confirmed death toll had risen from 99 to 101 in an afternoon video address, saying, “We are heartsick that we’ve had such loss.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deployed a team of coroners, pathologists and technicians along with exam tables, X-ray units and other equipment to identify victims and process remains, said Jonathan Greene, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary for response.

Also Read | Hawaii’s deadly wildfire: what we know

“It’s going to be a very, very difficult mission,” Mr. Greene said. “And patience will be incredibly important because of the number of victims.”

A week after a blaze tore through historic Lahaina, many survivors started moving into hundreds of hotel rooms set aside for displaced locals, while donations of food, ice, water and other essentials poured in.

Crews using cadaver dogs have scoured about 32% of the area, the County of Maui said in a statement Tuesday. The Governor asked for patience as authorities became overwhelmed with requests to visit the burn area.

Just three bodies have been identified, and officials expected to start releasing names Tuesday, according to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, who renewed an appeal for families with missing relatives to provide DNA samples. So far 41 samples have been submitted, the county statement said, and 13 DNA profiles have been obtained from remains.

The Governor warned that scores more bodies could be found. The wildfires, some of which have not yet been fully contained, are already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century. Their cause was under investigation.

When asked by Hawaii News Now if children are among the missing, Mr. Green said Tuesday: “Tragically, yes. … When the bodies are smaller, we know it’s a child.”

He described some of the sites being searched as “too much to share or see from just a human perspective.”

An FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT) agent watches as two additional refrigerated storage containers arrive adjacent to the Maui Police Forensic Facility where human remains are stored in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Wailuku, Hawaii.

An FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT) agent watches as two additional refrigerated storage containers arrive adjacent to the Maui Police Forensic Facility where human remains are stored in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Wailuku, Hawaii.
| Photo Credit:
AFP

Another complicating factor, Mr. Green said, is that storms with rain and high winds were forecast for the weekend. Officials are mulling whether to “preemptively power down or not for a short period of time, because right now all of the infrastructure is weaker.”

A week after the fires started, some residents remained with intermittent power, unreliable cellphone service and uncertainty over where to get assistance. Some people walked periodically to a seawall, where phone connections were strongest, to make calls. Flying low off the coast, a single-prop airplane used a loudspeaker to blare information about where to get water and supplies.

Victoria Martocci, who lost her scuba business and a boat, planned to travel to her storage unit in Kahalui from her Kahana home Wednesday to stash documents and keepsakes given to her by a friend whose house burned. “These are things she grabbed, the only things she could grab, and I want to keep them safe for her,” Ms. Martocci said.

The local power utility has already faced criticism for not shutting off power as strong winds buffeted a parched area under high risk for fire. It’s not clear whether the utility’s equipment played any role in igniting the flames.

Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. President and CEO Shelee Kimura said many factors go into a decision to cut power, including the impact on people who rely on specialized medical equipment and concerns that a shutoff in the fire area would have knocked out water pumps.

Mr. Green has said the flames raced as fast as a mile (1.6 kilometres) every minute in one area, fueled by dry grass and propelled by strong winds from a passing hurricane.

The blaze that swept into centuries-old Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000. That fire has been 85% contained, according to the county. Another blaze known as the Upcountry fire was 60% contained.

The Lahaina fire caused about $3.2 billion in insured property losses, according to calculations by Karen Clark & Company, a prominent disaster and risk modeling company. That doesn’t count damage to uninsured property. The firm said more than 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed by flames, with about 3,000 damaged by fire or smoke or both.

Even where the flames have retreated, authorities have warned that toxic byproducts may remain, including in drinking water, after the flames spewed poisonous fumes. That has left many unable to return home.

The Red Cross said 575 evacuees were spread across five shelters as of Monday. Mr. Green said thousands of people will need housing for at least 36 weeks. He said Tuesday that some 450 hotel rooms and 1,000 Airbnb rentals were being made available.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he and first lady Jill Biden would visit Hawaii “as soon as we can” but he doesn’t want his presence to interrupt recovery and cleanup efforts. During a stop in Milwaukee to highlight his economic agenda, Mr. Biden pledged that “every asset they need will be there for them.”

More than 3,000 people have registered for federal assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and that number was expected to grow.

FEMA was providing $700 to displaced residents to cover the cost of food, water, first aid and medical supplies, in addition to qualifying coverage for the loss of homes and personal property.

The Biden administration was seeking $12 billion more for the government’s disaster relief fund as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress.

Mr. Green said “leaders all across the board” have helped by donating over 1 million pounds (450,000 kilograms) of food as well as ice, water, diapers and baby formula. U.S. Marines, the Hawaii National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard have all joined the aid and recovery efforts.

Lahaina resident Kekoa Lansford helped rescue people as the flames swept through town. Now he is collecting stories from survivors, hoping to create a timeline of what happened. He has 170 emails so far.

The scene was haunting. “Horrible, horrible,” Mr. Lansford said Tuesday. “You ever seen hell in the movies? That is what it looked like. Fire everywhere. Dead people.”

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Maui wildfire: Death toll hits 89 as authorities expect number to rise

As the death toll from a wildfire that razed a historic Maui town reached 89, authorities warned Saturday that the effort to find and identify the dead was still in its early stages. It’s already the deadliest US wildfire for over a century.

Crews with cadaver dogs have completed just three per cent of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.

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“We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles and it is full of our loved ones. And we’ve got 89 so far. Today we identified two,” noting that the death toll is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”

He spoke as federal emergency workers picked through an ashen moonscape left by the fire that razed the centuries-old town of Lahaina. Teams marked the ruins of homes with a bright orange X for an initial search and HR when they found human remains.

Pelletier said that identifying the dead is extremely challenging because “we pick up the remains and they fall apart… When we find our family and our friends, the remains that we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal.”

Dogs worked the rubble, and their occasional bark – used to alert their handlers to a possible corpse – echoed over the hot and colourless landscape.

“It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced,” Gov. Josh Green remarked Saturday as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street. “We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding.”

At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Green said, of which 86 per cent were residential. Across the island, he added, the damage was estimated at close to $6 billion. He said it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.”

At least two other fires have been burning in Maui, with no fatalities reported thus far: in south Maui’s Kihei area and in the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry. A fourth broke out Friday evening in Kaanapali, a coastal community in West Maui north of Lahaina, but crews were able to extinguish it, authorities said.

Green said the Upcountry fire had affected 544 structures, of which 96% were residential.

Emergency managers in Maui were searching for places to house people displaced from their homes. As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook early Saturday, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.

Pelletier said the police are bringing in more dogs, but the search for remains is still in the early stages.

He encouraged those with missing family members to go to the family assistance centre.

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“We need you to do the DNA test. We need to identify your loved ones,” Pelletier said. He noted that the death toll is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”

Those who escaped counted their blessings, thankful to be alive as they mourned those who didn’t make it.

Retired fire captain Geoff Bogar and his friend of 35 years, Franklin Trejos, initially stayed behind to help others in Lahaina and save Bogar’s house. But as the flames moved closer and closer Tuesday afternoon, they knew they had to get out. Each escaped to his own car. When Bogar’s wouldn’t start, he broke through a window to get out, then crawled on the ground until a police patrol found him and brought him to a hospital.

Trejos wasn’t as lucky. When Bogar returned the next day, he found the bones of his 68-year-old friend in the back seat of his car, lying on top of the remains of the Bogars’ beloved 3-year-old golden retriever Sam, whom he had tried to protect.

Trejos, a native of Costa Rica, had lived for years with Bogar and his wife, Shannon Weber-Bogar, helping her with her seizures when her husband couldn’t. He filled their lives with love and laughter.

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“God took a really good man,” Weber-Bogar said.

The newly released death toll surpassed the toll of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. A century earlier, the 1918 Cloquet Fire broke out in drought-stricken northern Minnesota and raced through a number of rural communities, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds.

The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 on the Big Island, prompted the development of a territory-wide emergency alert system with sirens that are tested monthly.

Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate the warning sirens sounded before fire hit the town. Officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui raced through parched brush covering the island.

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US Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said the Lahaina fire moved quickly. “It was a low-to-the-ground fire. It was grass-fed by all evidence that we could observe today,” she said.

“It outpaced anything firefighters could have done in the early hours,” she said, adding that it moved horizontally, structure to structure and “incredibly fast.”

The most serious blaze swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000, leaving a grid of grey rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes.

Maui water officials warned Lahaina and Kula residents not to drink running water, which may be contaminated even after boiling, and to only take short, lukewarm showers in well-ventilated rooms to avoid possible chemical vapor exposure.

The danger on Maui was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan updated in 2020 identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and several buildings at risk. The report also noted West Maui had the island’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan stated.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may have been hampered by limited staff and equipment.

Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, said there are a maximum of 65 county firefighters working at any given time, who are responsible for three islands: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.

“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” he said. “That’s what we experienced, that’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”

Riley Curran said he fled his Front Street home after seeing the oncoming fire from the roof of a neighbouring building. He doubts county officials could have done more, given the speed of the onrushing flames.

“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran said. “The fire went from zero to 100.”

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Aviator Nation Founder Walks Back Plans For Retail Cuts After Backlash

It’s not all rainbows and smiley faces at popular clothing brand Aviator Nation. Founder Paige Mycoskie, one of the wealthiest self-made female entrepreneurs in the U.S., set off a frenzy at her company last week after calling for sudden cuts to Aviator Nation’s retail staff – and then jetting off on a week-long Hawaii vacation.

The 43-year-old Mycoskie, who owns 100% of the business, known for its, yes, pricey smiley-faced sweatpants and rainbow-striped hoodies popular among TikTok teens and twenty-somethings, then appeared to back track on the plans, which involved slashing the hours worked by many employees in the company’s 17 stores.

“We drafted new guidelines for retail employee scheduling in order to provide additional structure as we continue scaling the business,” Mycoskie said in a statement shared via an Aviator Nation spokesperson late on Thursday, a day after she returned home to a barrage of staff complaints and to questions from Forbes about her plans. (She had outlined retail expansion plans in a Forbes article weeks earlier).

“With our continued growth, this was intended to provide the team with more structure and support, however, once we released the new guidelines it came to my attention that the team is concerned with the proposed changes,” Mycoskie’s statement continued. An Aviator Nation spokesperson denied that the changes related to any decrease in retail sales at the company.

The founder added that all plans for layoffs or cutbacks on employee hours are “currently on hold while we review and address the team’s concerns.” The company said Friday afternoon that Mycoskie had alerted her team and that “the modified schedule was not put into place yet.” However, as of Friday evening, two employees and one store manager told Forbes that employees’ hours had already been reduced and that they’d heard no news yet of reversing those changes.

Forbes was contacted on June 13 by two employees at Aviator Nation’s location in Laguna Beach, California, who said they were pulled into an emergency meeting earlier that day and informed that most of their team would likely be let go following new orders from HQ. By the next day, the employees, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said they were updated that there wouldn’t be layoffs at their store but that both full-time and part-time employees–a number of whom were invited back to work this summer after working at the company last year–would instead see their hours significantly reduced. (An Aviator Nation spokesperson said it is “categorically false” that employees at this store were ever told they could be laid off.)

The Laguna Beach store would usually have up to seven people on the sales floor, but the new requirements called for a maximum of three during weekdays and four during the weekends, according to the store employees. One of the sales associates said they were told they would be reduced from working five days a week to one day a week, which meant they would have to look for another job and therefore it had a similar impact to being laid off. “We never thought something like this would happen at Aviator Nation since Paige talks so much about how she prioritizes her employees,” this person said.

Employees at two other Aviator Nation stores told Forbes that workers’ hours were diminished at their locations, too, though the cuts varied by store. The Aviator Nation store in Austin was told to have fewer people on the sales floor, according to two employees there (this is the closest store to Mycoskie, who divides her time between her homes in the Texas capital and Aspen, Colorado–where she recently splashed out $20 million for her ninth home). Meanwhile, an employee at Aviator Nation’s Venice Beach location says part-time workers at their store were also reduced to one day a week. “I will probably not be with the company by the end of the month,” this person said.

Adding to employees’ grievances about the situation was the fact that Mycoskie was on vacation in Hawaii when the new guidelines were sent through to employees. She was out of the office from at least Wednesday June 14 and returned on Wednesday June 21. A company spokesperson described this as a “scheduled family vacation.” Over the weekend Mycoskie posted a video of herself beachside and a selfie to her Instagram story with the caption, “Island life.” “She’s posting like inspirational quotes on her story though and I’m like girl what???” one sales associate said in a text.

Forbes recently highlighted Mycoskie as one of the richest self-made women in the U.S. with an estimated net worth of $380 million. In an April interview, she stressed Aviator Nation’s growing sales, which increased from $110 million in 2021 to $130 million in 2022, and new store openings in New York City and Nashville in the coming months; the company just opened a location in The Hamptons. She made no mention of any plans for impending layoffs. “I do believe it’s important for the long-term success of the company to keep brick and mortar,” Mycoskie said at the time, though she noted that most of the company’s revenue came through its online channels instead of the stores.

Though she has since hit pause on her plans for a retail shakeup, some employees painted the saga as reflective of broader management issues at the buzzy clothing company. Aviator Nation also halted the introduction of new mandatory “uniforms” that proved unpopular among some employees, who complained about wearing the long-sleeved, black “flight suits” (they retail for $350 a pop on Aviator Nation’s website) they were sent in hot climates like California and Texas. “We look like we’re about to go and change a tire,” said a sales associate at the Austin store.

“[Paige] is on vacation quite a bit,” said one store manager, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. The manager said the company’s founder has been “pretty out of the loop on what’s going on in retail stores for quite a while by choice… Recently her attention was turned back to stores and she realized we have ‘too many employees.’” The Venice Beach sales associate and a sales associate at Aviator Nation’s Austin location said they rarely see Mycoskie at their locations.

A company spokesperson responded that Mycoskie, who launched Aviator Nation back in 2007 while working part-time at a Venice Beach surf shop and grew it over the years with no outside funding (as detailed by Forbes in a 2022 profile), remains “very involved in every aspect of her business including the retail stores but she also trusts her leadership team to manage their departments, especially as the company continues to grow.” The spokesperson said that Mycoskie still visits stores weekly and “reviews photos of the ones she is not visiting as often regularly.”

The Venice Beach sales associate also highlighted a cliquey environment at the company (“All of Paige’s friends are hired and her girlfriend works for her,” said the employee, referencing Mycoskie’s girlfriend Jessica Jean Martin who is the company’s head of social media and partnerships) as well as what they said appeared to be over-the-top spending. They say Aviator Nation was flying many of their colleagues back and forth to the company’s new store in The Hamptons for the store’s May opening. “They did it in this crazy way where they fly one person there for a few days and then fly them back and then fly another person there,” said the employee. This company spends money like just down the drain.”

“We did fly members to the East Coast in order to build-out our new East Hampton and NYC shops and get those stores up and running,” said the Aviator Nation spokesperson. “We do offer the team the opportunity to travel to wherever the business may need them… Our employees consider these opportunities ‘perks.’”

Another speed bump at the trendy retailer: an uptick in customer complaints after the company’s Memorial Day sale, say three employees. The company was unable to facilitate the massive influx in orders that came in after the brand marked prices down by 40% and has been flooded with complaints from customers either receiving the wrong orders or still waiting for updates on orders they placed in May. Dozens of comments from disgruntled buyers on many of Aviator Nation’s Instagram posts prompted Mycoskie to respond from her personal Instagram on multiple posts between June 6 and June 11 that the company received “about 4x the amount of orders we typically have during a big sale” and the team was “overwhelmed.”

But a Laguna Beach sales associate says the company had the same issue last year with its Black Friday sale. “This is an issue that happens every single time that we have a sale,” this employee said. “And then even though people haven’t received their items from that sale, we had another Father’s Day Sale.” Aviator Nation says that all its Memorial Day orders have now been processed and shipped to customers.

The three store employees also said they are also seeing more complaints from customers about the quality of the clothing. “It’s practically every day now that a customer is coming in showing us this full set that they bought and they spent $400 on and the color of the top and the bottom doesn’t match. That’s one of our most frequent (complaints),” said one Laguna Beach sales associate, who adds that people also complain that shirts are slanted or the stripes or falling off. “Your clothes from Lululemon would not look like that,” added the Austin sales associate.

“Our sales–retail, wholesale and ecommerce–continue to grow and we have a lifetime guarantee on our products for any manufacturing defects,” said an Aviator Nation spokesperson. “The brand will pay to have the item fixed or replace it. We stand behind the excellent quality of our clothing.”

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I asked ChatGPT to help me plan a vacation. Here’s what happened next

Some people love travel planning.

But I am not one of those people.

So the idea that artificial intelligence chatbots, such as ChatGPT and Bing, can research travel destinations and create itineraries is intriguing.

But I’m skeptical too.

Do recommendations just scratch the surface — for example, suggesting that I see the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Or can they recommend lesser-known restaurants and handle specific hotel requests too?

The answer is: yes and no — at least for ChatGPT.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t test Bing. When I tried to access it, I was put on a waiting list. The website said I could “get ahead in the line” if I set Microsoft defaults on my computer and scanned a QR code to install the Bing app. I did both. I’m still waiting.

ChatGPT was easier. I went to the developer’s website, clicked on the word “ChatGPT,” registered for an account — and started chatting.

‘Can you help me plan a beach trip?’

“Of course!” replied ChatGPT. But first, I needed to tell it about my interests, budget and how long I planned to be away.

I’m looking for a week-long beach trip in mid-March to spend time with my family, with no set budget, I typed.

“Sounds like a wonderful idea!” it replied, before recommending Hawaii, the Caribbean — specifically the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic — Florida and Costa Rica, along with details about the weather and popular attractions for each.

Nice. But I live in Singapore, I said.

“I see!” it exclaimed. (ChatGPT loves exclamation points.) In that case, Bali, Indonesia; Langkawi, Malaysia; and Phuket and Krabi in Thailand were better choices.

ChatGPT is nothing if not apologetic.

Cost estimates for each hotel were more accurate. But ChatGPT couldn’t show photographs of the hotels or help book them — although it did provide ample instructions on how to do both.

By road or by rail?

Flights

ChatGPT can name airlines that connect cities, but it can’t give current flight information or help book flights.  

It wasn’t able to tell me the cheapest fare — or any fare — from London to New York this spring because it doesn’t “have access to real-time pricing information,” it said.

In fact, ChatGPT data ends at September 2021; it doesn’t “know” anything that’s happened since.

However, the bot could answer which month the London-to-New York route is usually the cheapest, which it said is “January and February, or during the shoulder season months of March and November.”

As for the best airline in the world, it said: “As an AI language model, I cannot have personal preferences or opinions.” But it went on to name the top five airlines named to Skytrax’s “World’s Top 100 Airlines” in 2021.

The list wasn’t correct.

The list provided by ChatGPT appears to be Skytrax’s airline ranking from 2019 instead.  

“Where should I eat?”

Specific questions

I had many more questions for ChatGPT, such as:

“How should I spend five days in South Africa?”
“Which chateaux accept visitors in Bordeaux?”
“If I only have one day in London, what should I do?”
“Which rides have the longest lines at Disney World?”

But before I could, my screen said “Access denied” alongside an “error code 1020” message.

This error may be caused by overloaded servers or by exceeding the daily limit, according to the tech website Stealth Optional. Either way, all of my previous chats were inaccessible, a huge negative for travelers in the middle of the planning process.

A new window didn’t fix the problem, but opening one in “incognito mode” did. Once in, I clicked on “Upgrade to Plus,” which showed that the free plan is available when demand is low, but for $20 per month, the “Plus plan” gives access to ChatGPT all the time, faster responses and priority to use new features.

With access again, I quickly asked about wait times on Disney World rides, a subject which I had spoken to luxury travel advisor Jonathan Alder of Jonathan’s Travels about last week. Alder lives close to the park and has lost count of how many times he’s visited, he said. Yet, only one of their answers — Epcot’s “Frozen Ever After” — overlapped.

ChatGPT mentioned that FastPass and Genie+ can reduce wait times at Disney World, which is partly right. The company phased out its “skip the line” virtual queue FastPass program when it introduced Genie+ in the fall of 2021.

The takeaway

ChatGPT is fast, chatty and feels like you’re interacting with a human. I found myself responding with unnecessary pleasantries — “Ok, sure” and “Thank you” — out of habit.

I could see how it could save travelers’ time, especially if they are looking for an overview or are at the early stages of planning.

But information will need to be current, of course — and bugs and error messages, which I faced several times in addition to the “1020” message mentioned above — will need to be fixed.

OpenAI states that the current ChatGPT version “is a free research preview.” It also says the system may “occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information” and that it’s “not intended to give advice.”

When I asked it about its travel planning abilities, it said it “can assist with many aspects of travel planning” but that it may not be able to “provide personalized advice based on your unique circumstances.”

My verdict: Travel agents’ jobs are secure for the time being.

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