HONOLULU (KHON) – Crews across Maui continue to carefully search for victims amid the rubble of last week’s wildfires, which claimed the lives of at least 114 people. But only approximately 60% of the disaster area had been covered by search and rescue teams as of Friday, according to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, meaning the process is far from over.
Even after the job is done, clearing the ashes and debris from Lahaina and nearby communities will be a long, expensive and potentially dangerous process, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D) said.
“It could be up to a billion dollars and take up to a year,” Schatz explained. “And so we have to brace ourselves for a really big enterprise of removing all of that debris.”
Schatz said the cleanup can begin once crews finish searching for missing family and friends.
“Once that process is done, FEMA goes in with the Environmental Protection Agency, and also the Army Corps of Engineers, and they start to determine what is hazardous and how it ought to be disposed of,” said Schatz. “There will be hazardous waste, especially in Lahaina town.”
The EPA will also have to search each home, each structure, and take and test soil samples and water samples, to ensure it’s safe for people to walk around in Lahaina town.
In a statement, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers said it had deployed a team specifically to help oversee the efforts.
“We have also activated a Debris Planning and Response Team which is a specialized management cell team that provides contracting and management oversight for debris removal and clearance missions, infrastructure and coastal assessments and technical assistance work in the state,” the statement confirmed.
But where will the debris go?
“Nobody has settled the question of what’s going to have to happen to the construction debris,” said Schatz, adding that he wanted it off Maui.
“We haven’t figured out the logistics,” he said. “I don’t know whether that’s possible. But that is our strong, strong preference.”
As for that potential $1 billion price tag, it’s possible the federal government may cover it.
“Right now, we have an agreement to have the federal government cover 100% of the costs for the next 120 days,” said Schatz.
If contracts don’t go out within that time period, the state or Maui County could have to pay a portion of the removal costs.
“So obviously, we have a very, very strong preference to get those contracts out during the period when the 100% cost share is in place,” Schatz said.
Community activists, meanwhile, said Friday at a news conference that they worry Hawaii’s governor is moving too quickly to rebuild what was lost while the grief is still raw.
They called on Gov. Green to give residents time to grieve, provide community leaders with recovery decision-making roles, and comply with open-records laws amid distrust in the government response to the disaster.
“Let me be clear,” Gov. Green said at a news conference later that day. “Lahaina belongs to its people and we are committed to rebuilding and restoring it the way they want.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.