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Death toll from Maui wildfires reaches 96; officials complain of lack of water

by Claire Rush, Associated Press |

LAHAINA, Hawaii – Hawaii’s governor warned that scores more people could be found dead following the Maui wildfires as search crews go through neighborhoods where the flames moved as fast as a mile a minute and firefighters struggled to contain the inferno with what some officials complained was a limited water supply.

The blazes that consumed most of the historical town of Lahaina are already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, with a death toll of at least 96. The cause was under investigation.

“We are prepared for many tragic stories,” Gov. Josh Green told “CBS Mornings” in a recorded interview that aired Monday. “They will find 10 to 20 people per day, probably, until they finish. And it’s probably going to take 10 days. It’s impossible to guess, really.”

As cellular service has slowly been restored, the number of people missing dropped to about 1,300 from more than 2,000, Green said.

Twenty cadaver dogs and dozens of searchers are making their way through blocks reduced to ash.

“Right now, they’re going street by street, block by block, between cars, and soon they’ll start to enter buildings,” Jeff Hickman, director of public affairs for the Hawaii Department of Defense, said Monday on NBC’s “Today.”

Meanwhile, some state officials say there is a shortage of water available for firefighters, and they blame a recent ruling by an environmental court judge. It’s part of a long-running battle between environmentalists and private companies over the decades-long practice of diverting water from East Maui streams that started during Hawaii’s sugar plantation past.

Elsewhere, evacuees were expected to begin moving into hotels Monday evening. Green said Sunday that 500 hotel rooms were being made available for displaced locals and an additional 500 rooms will be set aside for workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency who are aiding in the recovery.

In addition, FEMA has started to provide $700 to displaced residents to cover the cost of food, water, first aid and medical supplies, agency administrator Deanne Criswell said Monday. The money is in addition to whatever amount residents qualify for to cover the loss of homes and personal property.

“We’re not taking anything off the table, and we’re going to be very creative in how we use our authorities to help build communities and help people find a place to stay for the longer term,” Criswell said. More than 3,000 people have registered for federal assistance, according to FEMA, and that number was expected to grow.

On the water-supply issue, the deputy head of the U.S. Fire Administration, Tonya Hoover, said she did not have details on the island’s current water supply. She said the head of her agency has been meeting with firefighters, including one who was badly hurt and hospitalized.

The Biden administration is seeking $12 billion more for the government’s disaster relief fund as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress.