The number of people missing three weeks after a catastrophic wildfire destroyed the historic Hawaiian city of Lahaina is expected to drop into the double digits, Gov. Josh Green said Thursday.
At a daily briefing on recovery efforts in the wake of the Aug. 8 fire on Maui that killed 115 people, he pointed to a board that put the number of people unaccounted for at 50.
“We are heartbroken, but we still see the number of unregistered individuals decreasing,” he said in a video about Social Media.
“We’ll have a big update tomorrow, and pending that update, we think that number will drop into double digits, so thank God,” he said.
A list of the missing released last Friday by the FBI included the names of 388 people, but many have come forward to say they have been reunited with loved ones or were never missing to begin with.
Green said he expected the death toll to remain at 115.
The wildfire that destroyed large parts of Lahaina was one of three that broke out on the island that day, fueled by dry grass and high winds.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness said they believe the number of missing could be much higher than what officials are reporting because they may not account for residents who were living on the street or in their cars when the fire exploded .
“There are people who will literally be missed forever,” said Kurt Schmidt, the interim director of Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers. “They are already being forgotten and pushed aside, and now this. What happens to their memory, to their existence?”
According to a list of missing homeless residents maintained by volunteers and advocates, at least 30 unsheltered people remain unaccounted for, said Jelena Dackovic, the former director of the Maui Rescue Alliance.
It was not immediately clear whether the names on Dackovic’s list matched those released by the government. She said the majority of those still missing are likely homeless residents.
“I was hoping there would be an equal effort to find the homeless,” Dackovic said. “It appears the governor’s list is only people who have emergency contact or phone numbers, so the list of missing is likely higher.”
A request for comment from the governor’s office was referred to the Maui Police Department, which could not immediately be reached by phone.
“Hopefully over time we’ll get some clarity on this,” Schmidt said.
Finding missing or dead homeless residents is especially difficult because they don’t always have cellphones with them or have dedicated groups of people checking in on them, service providers say.
“No one is going to provide DNA or file a missing report,” Schmidt said.
About 704 of the 6,223 homeless people in Hawaii live on Maui, according to the 2023 federal point-in-time count, but service providers said the numbers are likely to be higher because uneducated people tend to be undercounted.
Green said Thursday that search and rescue crews have mostly completed the survey of the burned area, which includes Lahaina, Hawaii’s original capital, and other cultural landmarks.
Officials have suggested that responders have recovered all the recognizable human remains they were able to find and are shifting their focus to removing hazardous materials before allowing residents to begin returning.
“We have almost completed the search-and-recovery mission and are moving into the next phase,” Darryl Oliveira, the interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said this week at a news conference.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said this week that urban search and rescue teams have “completed 100% of their area” but that some activity continues in the ocean off Lahaina.
So far, authorities have identified and notified the families of 45 people who were killed and collected DNA from 120 people to help identify the dead.