Hawaii’s state toxicologist Diana Felton has been warning that it could take months to clean up pollutants in the aftermath of Maui’s massive wildfires.
Some of the 46,000 people, both residents and tourists, fled the flames. As Maui residents return home to melted cars and destroyed buildings, Felton notes there’s a high chance that many of the ravaged town of Lahaina’s older buildings, now charred to rubble, contained asbestos or lead paint.
“These areas should be approached very carefully, very cautiously,” Felton told NPR. “You don’t really want to be exposed to any of this stuff.”
She further cautioned that “strange things can happen to the water,” and so the Department of Health Safe Drinking Water Branch is testing the drinking water throughout West Maui. At the moment, however, she said it was unclear whether any of the water was useable.
The death toll from the hurricane-fueled fires had risen to at least 96 killed by Monday morning. But that number could go much higher as roughly 1,000 people remain missing, and Maui County police chief, John Pelletier, said Sunday that only 3% of the disaster area had been searched so far.
FEMA director Deanne Criswell noted that a major challenge for recovery crews and search dogs is that many of the buildings remain only partially standing, so engineers embedded with the teams must first evaluate the structures’ stability.
She added that FEMA was bringing in “more teams and more dogs” to help “speed up the process as much as we can.”
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen told ABC News Monday morning that the closest thing he could compare the region to was “a war zone where maybe a bomb went off.”
“Most structures no longer exist for blocks and blocks of this,” he said. But he promised that the island would rebuild.
“I think it was six hours from the request was first made, [President Biden] signed the emergency declaration,” the Mayor noted. “Our governor also issued an emergency proclamation declaring an emergency and so did I for the county. What this has done, it has opened up the ability for us to seek federal assets, federal money, and that’s what we intend to do. But right now the focus is on fighting the fires, saving lives where we can or preventing further harm.”
Much of Hawaii was under a red flag warning for fire risk when the wildfires broke out, but the exact cause of the massive flames in Maui is still unknown. Mayor Bissen said on Monday that Maui officials would “get to the investigative stage when that’s appropriate.”