HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii Gov. Josh Green announced that the number of individuals reported missing from the catastrophic wildfire in Maui could decrease from nearly 400 to less than 100, as authorities are set to provide an update on their search efforts this Friday.
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"We believe the number has fallen into the double digits, thank God," he stated on Thursday in a video uploaded to X, previously known as Twitter.
Officials have reported that at least 115 individuals lost their lives in the blaze, which rapidly engulfed Lahaina on Aug. 8, marking it as the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century. Initially, over 1,000 people were deemed missing, with their family, friends, or acquaintances reporting their absence.
The list was subsequently reduced to 388 names who were credibly considered missing, but this list still included many who were either alive or confirmed to have died. After the names were published, over 200 people promptly provided information about those listed.
In the meantime, Green informed The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday that his administration has initiated several investigations into individuals who have allegedly made unsolicited property offers in the fire-ravaged Maui town of Lahaina, in violation of a new emergency order.
By signing an emergency proclamation on Aug. 19, Green banned such offers, aiming to prevent land in the historic coastal community from being acquired by external buyers. The order is intended to provide residents with some "breathing room" as they decide their next steps, Green explained.
Even prior to the fire, Lahaina was a rapidly gentrifying town, and there has been widespread concern that Native Hawaiians and local-born residents who have owned properties for generations might feel pressured to sell.
The concern is that they would leave Lahaina, Maui, or the state, taking their culture and traditions with them, contributing to the ongoing exodus of Hawaii's people to less costly places to live.
"We've seen that in many different places in our country and in our world where people have lost everything but their land and someone swoops in and buys properties for pennies on the dollar," Green said. "We want to keep this land in the hands of local people, and we want to give them at least a chance to decide whether they'd like to build back."
Approximately 1,800 to 1,900 homes were destroyed in the fire. The town of 12,000 residents was home to many who worked in hotels and restaurants in nearby Kaanapali and Lahaina itself.
About 6,000 people are staying in hotels and vacation rentals while waiting for the toxic waste left by the fire to be cleaned up and rebuilding to begin.
Earlier this month, Green, a Democrat, expressed his desire to impose a moratorium on land sales in Lahaina to prevent people from being displaced. However, the governor stated that a blanket ban "may not be doable" and he didn't want to prevent people who are considering property sales from initiating those conversations.
The prohibition on unsolicited property offers was a "de facto" moratorium, he said.
Authorities have received eight separate complaints about unsolicited offers, said David Day, a spokesperson for Attorney General Anne Lopez. All eight are under investigation, he said. Those found guilty of a violation may face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Lahaina resident Melody Lukela-Singh expressed her disappointment that the governor didn't impose an outright ban as he initially stated.
"Outsiders should not have the opportunity to grab land or properties. Because emotions are running high, so everyone is vulnerable," Lukela-Singh said.
She spoke near her temporary lodgings a few miles from the site of her Front Street home, which was destroyed in the fire. Lukela-Singh stated that she would not sell her land if any offers were made.
"You know, it's the only thing that we have left," said Lukela-Singh, who is Native Hawaiian. She knows of three families, all Filipino, who are selling their homes and want to move away because they can't handle the stress of seeing Lahaina burned to the ground.
State Rep. Troy Hashimoto, a Democrat who chairs the House housing committee and represents the central Maui community of Wailuku, said the prohibition on unsolicited offers was a “nuanced” approach.
“You don’t really want to be bothering a lot of landowners, especially when they’re not in that frame of mind or ready to discuss it,” Hashimoto said. “But I wouldn’t want to stop a landowner if they are proactively wanting to make a move, right?"
The situation presents two competing interests, said Robert Thomas, the director of property rights litigation at California-based Pacific Legal Foundation. One is the U.S. Supreme Court has found people have a right to decide what to do with their property. The other is the government has an interest in making sure people aren't preyed upon.
“It seems to me, and that’s just me observing this, that someone took a deep breath and said: ‘We can accomplish our goals of protecting the property owners here from predatory behavior without taking the drastic and perhaps unconstitutional route of just throwing this blanket ban,’” said Thomas, who practiced property and land law in Hawaii for 35 years.
Green earlier suggested the idea of the state acquiring land in Lahaina to ensure local people weren’t priced out of the rebuilt community, but said Thursday the state would not do so unless the community asked.
One possibility would be the state forming a land trust to buy properties from families who could repurchase them later.
He also was open to hearing from Lahaina residents about what they want the state government to do with existing state lands in their town.
“The state's not going to make any move or take any initiative to build anything unless it’s what is asked for by the community,” Green said.
Green said he was considering setting up a “victim assistance fund" similar to the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which would make payments to those who suffered losses. The objective would be to compensate people without the need for large payouts to “middlemen” such as attorneys who often take 30% to 40% of legal settlements, he said.
It was too early to say who would put money into the project, but such funds often receive money from private, philanthropic and government sources, said Green, who planned to announce details during an address scheduled for Sept. 8.
Kelleher reported from Lahaina, Hawaii.