More than a month after catastrophic flames raced across Lahaina, annihilating most of the historic town and killing 97 people in Maui, some residents were finally able to return to the charred remains of their homes Monday.
According to CNN affiliate KHNL, residents in what has been designated Zone 1C were able to go to their properties in western Lahaina on Monday.
“I think we need this day,” Tawni Smith Katayama told the station before she and her grandmother went to see what remained of their home. “I think we need just a little bit of, not just closure, but it’s so unreal to see. And you know we’ve driven past it and we’ve seen it on the news, but I think really you need to just see, we need to see it in person. We need to go and stand on our property and see, you know, what’s left and process that.”
One additional deceased victim – Lahaina resident Matsuyuki Osato, 83 – was also identified by the county Monday.
Maui County has warned that “many dangers remain,” as burn sites could still be covered with hazardous materials like ash and other debris, such as asbestos, heavy metals, byproducts of plastic combustion and other chemicals.
Residents should be aware of the health risks of trying to “clean up” their burned properties, as doing so could make the situation worse, county officials said. Improperly handling debris and ash could spread dangerous material if it becomes airborne.
Authorities said they are developing a process to safely remove the potential dangers.
“For those who can return to their properties, state Department of Health officials urge all individuals to utilize Personal Protective Equipment,” Maui County said Sunday on social media.
While some hazards remain, Hawaii officials are trying “to do whatever is necessary for people to get closure,” Gov. Josh Green said last week.
It could take three months before Lahaina is fully cleared for reentry, Green said.
The Maui wildfires damaged or destroyed about 3,000 homes and businesses and caused an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion worth of destruction.
The disaster area has been split into zones, which will be gradually reopened to residents as they are inspected and deemed safe to reenter, Maui officials said.
“Some people will only want to go for a very short period of time, a few minutes, to say goodbye in a way to their property,” the governor said. “Others may want to stay several hours.”
He noted some will be returning to scorched grounds where their loved ones died.
“We know that people will be grieving and suffering a great deal of despair when they see how little is left,” Green said.
Lahaina’s tourism industry was obliterated by the wildfires, and many residents lost both their homes and their businesses.
But the state plans to reopen West Maui to visitors on October 8 and is trying to transition more than 7,400 displaced people from hotels to long-term housing, the governor has said.
But Green reassured residents that the planned reopening doesn’t mean housing assistance will end. He said reopening is necessary for rebuilding.
“We’re not pushing people out,” Green insisted. He said state officials and the American Red Cross will work with displaced people to “make sure they have a roof over their head.”
About half of the 1,500 parcels of land impacted by the Lahaina fire have been evaluated by disaster recovery teams, the governor said. And almost 16,000 people have registered for federal assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.