His Hawaiian shirt lit red by taillights, Jowel Delfin waited in the inky darkness for the road to Lahaina to reopen.
He’d arrived just after 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, his truck among the first at the checkpoint. Hundreds of cars waited in line by the time police began waving people through at 6 a.m., the first time this section of Honoapi’ilani Highway opened to the public since the most deadly U.S. wildfire in a century cut a wrathful path through his island paradise.
For the record:
3:46 p.m. Aug. 18, 2023An earlier version of this article misspelled Jowel Delfin’s surname as Dolphin. A previous correction misspelled the name as Delphin.
Over a week after the fire scorched the island and incinerated Lahaina, locals are beginning to return to work in West Maui — an area largely cut off from the rest of Maui since the destruction.
The road to recovery begins on Honoapi’ilani Highway, or Hawaii Route 30, which Gov. Josh Green announced would first open Tuesday night to first responders and West Maui residents and employees, and then to everyone else Wednesday morning.
The reopening followed more than a week of confusing rules about who could go into the burn zone. On Monday, less than an hour after opening a placard program to allow verified people into the area, officials suspended the program.
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As roosters crowed and the black sky turned pre-dawn blue, a line of cars stretched as far as the eye could see, waiting to head up the oceanfront road that winds along the western edge of Maui and into Lahaina.
Delfin was eager to arrive on time to his job as a landscaper at Ka’anapali Beach Club. But normalcy was far from his mind. His brother-in-law had lost his home in the fire, and about a dozen members of his extended family were now crowded into his Waikapu Gardens home.
Still, like many waiting to reenter West Maui, Delfin needed to work.
Several drivers said they were service workers at hotels in Ka’anapali, which are not currently open to guests, although many have opened their doors to displaced employees and other survivors of the blaze that killed more than 100. Others worked maintenance and construction in the area, and nearly all had a personal connection to the fire.
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A hotel housekeeper who declined to give her name said she was relieved to be able to collect a paycheck this week because her bills couldn’t wait.
Amid the reopened road, uniformed National Guard officers staffed at least a dozen checkpoints, warning people away from the wreckage in the center of town and other neighborhoods leveled by the fire. Access was carefully limited, with long lines of cars waiting to cross various roadblocks.
In the areas spared by the blaze, residents were still without water or power. Along the Honoapiʻilani Highway north of Lahaina, parks served as local-led supply distribution centers.
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At the Lahaina Gateway mall, workers in industrial masks and headlamps filed in and out of a darkened Foodland supermarket, clearing rotting food.
The stench was unbearable, one said as he ripped off his respirator mask and looked toward the ocean.
Everywhere else, the smell of smoke still filled the air.
Standing in pajamas on her front porch early Wednesday, Pam Nelson stared out on a vista of destruction so vast it was difficult to take in all at once.
From higher up the hill, the slabs of rectangular white and gray building fragments resembled a graveyard. But from Nelson’s porch, the remnants of buildings and burned-out cars could be seen, her neighbors’ homes and lives leveled to ash.
“It looks like a war zone,” she said.
The capricious fire gutted houses across the street and obliterated an entire neighborhood just spitting distance from Nelson’s porch, but it left her two-story home and redolent plumeria tree untouched.
Meanwhile, the death toll continued to climb as more remains were located.
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Authorities on Tuesday released the names of two of more than 100 victims killed in the Aug. 8 fire.
Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, both of Lahaina, were killed in the blaze, Maui County officials announced late Tuesday.
More than 190 Federal Emergency Management Agency search crew members and 20 cadaver dogs were leading the mission to recover human remains, authorities said. At least 1,000 people remained unaccounted for late Tuesday, and officials have said they expect the death toll to climb further.
“Obviously this is a big tourist destination,” said Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. “I’m not sure to what extent the missing folks who have been unaccounted for are local or visitors.”
Cadaver dogs are combing through still-hot ruins, picking over glass shards, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said in a White House briefing Wednesday morning. She said federal officials are sending in more dogs to reinforce the weary canines already in Maui.
The search for and identification of victims has moved slowly. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday sent additional mortuary teams to assist local efforts in Hawaii, along with a portable morgue unit — deployed when a disaster spurs more fatalities than can be handled locally. The temporary morgue includes 22½ tons of supplies and equipment needed for victim identification and the processing of remains, including lab and X-ray equipment, officials said.
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Officials have urged families looking for loved ones to submit DNA swabs to help with the identification process. Criswell urged survivors in Maui to register for assistance at www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling (800) 621-3362.
“I want to be honest with everyone,” Criswell said. “This is also going to be a very long and hard recovery.”
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Maui on Monday to meet with first responders and survivors as well as federal, state and local officials, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced Wednesday.
Both FEMA and the Small Business Administration have opened recovery centers on the island. FEMA has approved more than $2.3 million in assistance to more than 1,300 households, senior official Marcus Coleman said Wednesday in a media call.
Even foreign governments are offering help; Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said South Korean Consul General Lee Seo-young is donating $2 million to the rescue effort.
Luke said in a statement Wednesday that the state has sent more than 10,000 pounds of food and supplies to Maui. The American Red Cross of Hawaii, which has more than 300 disaster workers on the island, reported giving more than 28,600 meals and snacks.
As search efforts slowly continue, questions and anger are building among residents about the lack of warnings from officials. State records indicate that none of the 80 sirens across the island were activated the day the fires broke out. Officials have said they broadcast emergency alerts to television and radio stations and mobile phones, but the flames — which tore through the area at 1 mile per minute — wiped out power lines and effectively stopped communication in the area.
The Lahaina fire was 85% contained Wednesday. The cause of the blaze and the level of preparedness for its deadly destruction are under investigation, Green said.