23 August 2023

Hawaii officials urge families of people missing after fires to give DNA samples

23 August 2023

Authorities in Hawaii have pleaded with relatives of people missing after the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century to come forward and give DNA samples.

They said the low number provided threatens to hinder efforts to identify any remains discovered in the rubble.

Up to 1,100 names remain on an unconfirmed list of people unaccounted for after wildfires destroyed the seaside community of Lahaina on Maui.

But Julie French, who is helping to lead efforts to identify remains by DNA analysis, said the family assistance centre had collected DNA samples from just 104 families on Tuesday.

Maui prosecuting attorney Andrew Martin, who is running the centre, said the number of family members coming in to provide DNA samples is “a lot lower than they’ve seen in other disasters”.

He said: “That’s our concern, that’s why I’m here today, that’s why I’m asking for this help.”

Mr Martin sought to reassure people any samples would be used only to help identify victims of the fires and would not be entered into any law enforcement databases or used for any other purpose.

Those who donate would not be asked about their immigration status or US citizenship, he said.

“What we want to do — all we want to do — is help people locate and identify their unaccounted-for loved ones,” he said.

Two weeks after the flames tore through Lahaina, officials are facing huge challenges to determine how many of people perished and how many may have made it to safety but have not checked in.

Similar issues occurred after a wildfire in 2018 which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California.

Authorities in Butte County, home to Paradise, ultimately published a list of the missing in the local newspaper – a decision that helped identify scores of people who had made it out alive but were listed as missing.

Within a month, the list dropped from 1,300 names to only a dozen.

Butte County sheriff Kory Honea said: “I probably had, at any given time, 10 to 15 detectives who were assigned to nothing but trying to account for people who were unaccounted for.

“At one point the local editor of our newspaper… said, ‘Hey, if you give me the names, I will print them’. And at that point it was like, ‘Absolutely. Anything that we can do to help out’.”

Hawaii officials have expressed concern that by releasing a list of the missing, they would also be identifying people who have died.

In an email on Tuesday, the State Joint Information Centre called it “a standard held by all law enforcement and first responders here in Hawaii, out of compassion and courtesy for the families, to withhold the names until the families can be contacted.”

On Monday, 115 people were confirmed dead according to Maui police.

All single-storey, residential properties in the disaster area have been searched and teams were moving to search multi-storey residential and commercial properties, Maui County officials said.

There are widely varying accounts of the tally of the missing.

Hawaii governor Josh Green said on Sunday more than 1,000 remained unaccounted for. Maui mayor Richard Bissen said in a pre-recorded video on Instagram the number was 850.

And during President Joe Biden’s tour of the devastation on Monday, White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall put it between 500 and 800.

An unofficial, crowd-sourced spreadsheet of missing people posted online listed nearly 700 names on Tuesday.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox