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Maui latest: Panic and prank calls as officials continue to verify missing people

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's been nearly three weeks since the devastating wildfires swept across parts of Maui. Authorities in the historic town of Lahaina have now searched the entire burn zone, and they have not found any more bodies. Fires destroyed most of that town, which was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. Urban search-and-recovery teams are still double-checking some last places, including the ocean around the burn zone where many tried to escape the fire. The death toll remains at 115 people.

NPR's Kirk Siegler joins us from Lahaina. Hey, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So there's been so much attention on this missing persons list, and it's been fluctuating. At one point, there were around a thousand people still unaccounted for. Is that still the case?

SIEGLER: Well, it's been pretty difficult, I should say, to really get a firm answer on that. This week, authorities released a new verified list of 388 names that they were seeking more information on. But then, Scott, they clarified later that there are still hundreds of other names of people considered unaccounted for. You know, for context here, this kind of confusion, I should say, is not that unusual after such a large-scale disaster like this. The authorities are telling us that this is methodical work. It's a long process of trying to get people off this list. You know, some of the information they have coming in is wrong. There are duplicates, and everything has to be vetted. Here's Maui Police Chief John Pelletier at a news conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PELLETIER: There's no secrecy or hidden agenda. We're going as fast as we can, but we're doing it the right way.

DETROW: I mean, the number is still so alarming, though. What's the reaction been on Maui to the fact that this list is still so big?

SIEGLER: Well, there's been frustration, I think, as you can hear, the police chief alluding to there. And, you know, it's human nature to fear the worst when you see a list this high. You know, where I'm standing at a makeshift memorial up on a hill looking out over this burn zone, it's huge. So much devastation - about a mile down to the ocean, everything in front of me is leveled. But like - as we saw after the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., the number of unaccounted for, that official list, back then, it was very high for days like this. But eventually, they figured out that most people just hadn't checked in. You know, here in Maui, there could be tourists that have flown home, maybe left the country.

And Scott, people are in a lot of crisis. It's not always their top priority to, say, make sure they've called the Red Cross to let them know they should be taken off the list. There are just a lot of reasons. But I think we can say since the official death toll has not gone up in almost a week now, there's a lot of hope here that it's not going to climb too much more at this point, especially since, as you've said, they've now searched pretty much the entire burn zone.

DETROW: Yeah. You've been reporting there for several days now. Give us a sense of how survivors are coping with this overwhelming loss.

SIEGLER: Well, it's a familiar pattern after a disaster like this - lots of traumatized, shaken people, a lot of frustration, too, as we've been reporting in the last couple of weeks about what went down that day in terms of the lack of official warnings. Yesterday, I met Ashley Kotter, who told me the only reason she and her husband got out was because they got a text from friends telling them to run.

ASHLEY KOTTER: There could have been so many things that could have been done, some type of siren or an alert on your phone or what have you. That's - there's just - there's a lot of questions to be asked. You know, we had no warning of anything like this. And we are - we come back to just being so grateful because we're here.

SIEGLER: They lost everything. And, you know, she told me, Scott, that she's been watching that missing persons list and figures she could have been on it had they not escaped in a golf cart, you know, figuring if they took a car, they'd just get stuck in gridlock and there would be downed power lines everywhere.

DETROW: Wow. And real quick, before we go, one other thing - this week, Maui County became the latest to file a lawsuit against the local utility. What's going on there?

SIEGLER: Broadly, the suit says the utility knew there was a high wildfire risk, and they did little to prepare. And even though the investigation into the cause of the fire has not been completed - that'll take months at a minimum, they say - the lawsuit says it's the companies downed power lines started it.

DETROW: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thanks, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. 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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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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