More than 800 People Still Listed as Missing from Maui Wildfires

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
A missing-persons flier taped to a mailbox at Napili Plaza in Maui reflects the ongoing search by families and friends for loved ones.

Some 850 people are still missing after the wildfires that torched parts of Maui and devastated the historic town of Lahaina, according to local officials, with 85 percent of the disaster area searched as of Sunday.

The latest official death toll in the deadliest U.S. fire in more than a century stood at 114, but that number was expected to increase as more victims are identified. Twenty-seven of the dead had been identified by Sunday, nearly two weeks after the fires, but officials had been able to locate and notify relatives of only 11 victims.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen posted a video online that he said was the “first of many daily reports” that will provide updates on the number of missing people. Initially, more than 2,000 people were unaccounted for, and he said the lists of names that families and friends had given local and federal agencies were recently “combined and refined” by the FBI – a “thorough and time-consuming process,” he explained.

He provided no breakdown of how many residents or tourists were among the 850 individuals on the list, but he noted that the total is appreciably less than the figures announced last week.

“We are both saddened and relieved about these numbers as we continue the recovery process,” Bissen said.

Those searching for loved ones continue to add their names to a county list and a list maintained by good Samaritans and shared on the Maui Fires People Finder page on Facebook. The tally now extends into the thousands, and though many names were marked “found” by Monday, dozens were still labeled “not located.” They included local fixtures Michael Mahnensmith, a craftsman at Island Sandals who, a note said, might have been sighted at a local shelter, and Rex Cole, last seen with his walker in a park at the foot of Lahaina’s historic banyan tree.

The mayor urged those with immediate family members still missing to provide DNA samples to assist in the identification process at the family assistance center set up at the Hyatt Regency on Ka’anapali Beach. Those not on Maui were asked to contact the FBI to provide DNA samples.

“Our lives have changed forever, and things will not be the same,” Bissen said. “What will be the same is the way we care for each other as we grieve and go through this together.”

Monday was another difficult day of recovery, though one marked by a visit from President Biden and first lady Jill Biden. They arrived shortly before noon on Air Force One for an aerial tour and an on-the-ground visit to what had been the seaside community of Lahaina, population 12,000.

Biden had been in contact with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D), who has said that more than 1,800 people displaced by the fires were staying at local hotels and that more than 7,000 people had applied for support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’re doing all that we can to bring some healing and recovery to our state,” Green said in a video posted online before the president’s visit.

The Bidens were greeted at Kahului Airport by Green, Hawaii’s two U.S. senators and other top officials. The first lady and the governor embraced on the tarmac, and the president and Green walked arm in arm to the waiting motorcade.

After touring charred Front Street in Lahaina, Biden called the devastation “overwhelming” and talked about the “black hole” that can follow such loss. He pivoted to the work ahead: “I also want all of you to know the country grieves with you, stands with you and will do everything possible to help you recover, rebuild, and respect culture and traditions when the rebuilding takes place.”

Even as they continued trying to find and identify the dead, county officials were warning Monday that expected rains from post-tropical cyclone Fernanda could trigger flash floods and mudslides, especially in burned areas where there is no longer vegetation. “Residents in areas that have been recently impacted by wildfires are asked to be vigilant about rainfall and flood risks resulting from heavy rains,” they said.

Relatives looking for loved ones are singularly focused, though.

Dani Ferguson was helping a California woman search for her lost brother, Phillip Hudelson, who had worked as a bartender at Lahaina’s Cheeseburger in Paradise. Both the restaurant and his house were destroyed by the flames.

Donna Vreyens-Randall of Myrtle Creek, Ore., posted on the Facebook page about relatives Becky Wells and Doug Gloege. Lynn Ouano-Faias was hoping for any word about her father, Jay Ouano. “Dad, if you see this . . . please find a way to call me so I know you’re alive and safe,” she wrote online.

By Monday, Ouano-Faias had good news to share: Ouano had been found.

“I video chatted with him,” she posted. “Mahalo, everyone, for the thoughts and prayers.”

Wells and Gloege also had been located.

“Our two family members [have] been identified by their fingerprints,” Vreyens-Randall posted. “They have passed on.”

Ferguson said Hudelson’s sister flew to Maui on Sunday, donating DNA at the county’s family assistance center and fearing the worst.

“They called her last night to say they had found him” at a local hotel, Ferguson said. “He had slept on the beach for a week, ate canned food he would find. He had a phone, some cash and a moped. The flames just chased him out.”

Hudelson had managed to make his way back to his house but found it burned to the ground. At that point his phone was dead, and he had nowhere to charge it, Ferguson recounted. He then slept outside a local shopping center.

When he and his sister connected, he was very sunburned and “so surprised,” Ferguson said. “We have to take him to get an ID and a can of gas for his moped.”

Ferguson said she’s also been posting missing-person signs for another local man, Troy Simpson, who as of Monday was still “not on any found list.” She shared a photo of Hudelson’s reunion with his sister online to encourage others still searching for loved ones.

“There’s always hope,” she said. “It was just astonishing to me that he got out.”