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People are mobilizing to help Maui fire survivors

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Residents in Maui are beginning the long process of recovery after extreme wildfires destroyed several hundred homes on the island this week. The scale of the loss is horrific. At least 80 people were killed, making it the second most deadly wildfire in recent U.S. history after the 2018 Camp Fire disaster in California. In West Maui, residents were without power for days. Authorities have been working to supply food and gas to the area. NPR's Lauren Sommer is in Maui and joins us now. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Authorities have been assessing the damage in Lahaina. Many people lost their lives there as the fire burned through the town. Catch us up on the latest there.

SOMMER: Yeah. Federal emergency teams are still searching for human remains. There are dog teams doing that. So there is still a chance that that death toll will go even higher. And we're still hearing that there are people missing. Some of that is due to the difficult communications. Cell service has been down on some part of the island for days. But residents from Lahaina are now being allowed to return to the area for the first time. Some, of course, are finding that their houses are completely destroyed, so there's a big need for housing here. Officials say they're looking for hundreds of hotel rooms. They're encouraging people to rent out rooms that they might have available. One of the evacuees I spoke to said he's thinking about going to Ohio to stay with relatives for a while.

ESTRIN: Wow. So obviously, the evacuees have been dealing with their lives being upended. And it also sounds like it's difficult for people who didn't even lose homes.

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, around Lahaina, the power has been out for days, meaning people have been losing the food in the refrigerators, that cell service is a problem. And in some areas, officials are also warning residents not to drink the water, that it might be unsafe, even if they boil it. So it's really exacerbating an already tough situation.

ESTRIN: How are people coping?

SOMMER: Yeah. I spoke to one resident, Jennifer Potter (ph). And she said, you know, people are really doing their best, and they're banding together when they can to get through it.

JENNIFER POTTER: There's a lot of desperation on the island. I'm speaking with my husband, who is working with some of the local restaurants right now. They've got food trucks that they're actually stocking with food from the restaurants that is now perishable.

SOMMER: You know, in other towns around Maui, as you drive around, you just see volunteers with big flats of water and food. They're loading it onto trucks to drive it to West Maui as well. So you know, it's a very close-knit island. Everyone I've spoken to here knows somebody affected.

ESTRIN: Lauren, do we know what caused the fire in the first place?

SOMMER: Yeah. There's still no information about the cause yet. This is an ongoing investigation. But the resident I spoke to, Potter, she actually has another connection to this issue. Until last year, she was on Hawaii's Public Utilities Commission, and she says utilities have known for a while that power lines need to be made more resilient to wildfires.

POTTER: The infrastructure in West Maui is very old. I mean, some of those substations are over 70 years old, and they're certainly not as reliable and as effective and maybe even as durable as we would like to see in these kind of storm conditions.

SOMMER: The utility here, Hawaiian Electric, did put forward a $190 million plan last summer to make the grid more resilient. It includes technology that can prevent power lines from sparking fires in high winds. And Potter says it's not moving fast enough, in her opinion. It certainly is something that California's electric utilities have had to do after power lines sparked some major fires there. To be clear, we don't know that power lines were involved in this fire, but she thinks it should still be a wake-up call, given Hawaii's fire risk, that, you know, more needs to be done.

ESTRIN: Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk. She's in Maui. Thank you, Lauren.

SOMMER: Yeah. Thank you. 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.

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Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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