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Efforts to help wildfire survivors ramp up in Lahaina, led largely by volunteers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More than 100 people are known to have died from wildfires that destroyed the historic Lahaina community. More than a week later, the slow and careful search for the dead goes on. Efforts to help survivors have ramped up, led largely by volunteers. And in the midst of the recovery effort, the head of Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency has resigned. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At a shopping center, one of the few areas that escaped the fire in Lahaina, cars lined up Thursday. Working with more than 100 volunteers, local officials have helped organize a large aid distribution center. Many whose homes were destroyed have found temporary quarters in the area, often doubling up with friends. Hawaii's governor, Josh Green, says nearly 1,500 people are being housed in hotels and Airbnbs. Kupaa Palau Ageppa and his family are staying at the resort where his father works. He says they barely escaped the fire with their lives.

KUPAA PALAU AGEPPA: The smoke started coming in, and then there was no evacuation notice. So if me and my family would have stayed five minutes, we would have had burned in that house.

ALLEN: How did you realize?

PALAU AGEPPA: The black smoke, and then my friend, he told - he came to my house, and he told us we should leave. And then we did.

ALLEN: Palau Ageppa says they jumped into his father's truck as the fire spread through their neighborhood.

PALAU AGEPPA: Like, at the bottom of the road, it was just on fire, and then in the middle of the road there was a tree connected to the power cables, so it was blocking us. My dad kind of had to, like, ram through it.

ALLEN: Many survivors say they heard about the evacuation order from neighbors and have questioned why the island's emergency sirens never sounded. On Thursday, the head of Maui's Emergency Management Agency, Herman Andaya, who had been steadfastly defending the decision not to use the sirens, resigned, citing health issues. As questions swirl about the lack of warning and inadequate response, it's not clear yet how many died. The burn zone, covering more than 2,200 structures and 2,000 acres, is closed to all but search-and-rescue teams. That's led to questions about the slow pace of recovery. At a news conference, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen asked the media and the public to be patient.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BISSEN: We continue to search for loved ones who are unaccounted for. We know the community wants us to move quicker, and we will continue to get better at what we're doing and, again, sending more volunteers and more workers to the west side.

ALLEN: Marin Pilloud is a forensic anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who worked on recovery efforts following the 2018 fire in Paradise, Calif. She says searching burn sites for remains is a slow and painstaking process, with crews using trowels, brushes and screens.

MARIN PILLOUD: 'Cause you want to make sure that you recover as much as possible. You know, you want to make sure that the family gets a full accounting of their loved ones.

ALLEN: After remains are recovered, they are then sent to a lab where they're identified using forensic techniques and DNA analysis, all of which, Pilloud says, takes time.

PILLOUD: That work will be done to make sure that we're positive that it's this person.

ALLEN: More than a week after the fire, some residents in Lahaina are growing resentful about what they see as intrusion by some in the media, especially those intent of getting shots of and access to the burn zone. One of them is longtime West Maui resident Katherine Wong.

KATHERINE WONG: The ashes in the air - those are bodies. You're walking in a graveyard, a live graveyard. Be respectful.

ALLEN: In the Paradise Fire, in which 85 people died, identifying the victims and notifying their relatives took months. To aid in the identification in the Lahaina fire, federal and state authorities are asking family members of those who are missing to provide saliva swabs for DNA sampling.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Maui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.