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Almost 100 people have been confirmed dead following wildfires that ripped through Hawaii over the past week and dozens more fatalities are expected, as the fallout of the disaster spreads to the US state’s economy and main utility.
The official death toll rose to 96 on Monday morning in what has become the deadliest natural disaster in the state’s history and the most devastating wildfire event in the US for more than a century. The figure is set to rise as search crews and cadaver dogs continue to scour the ruins of burnt-out buildings.
“We are prepared for many tragic stories,” Hawaii’s governor, Josh Green, said in an interview with CBS Mornings that aired on Monday.
“They will find 10 to 20 people per day probably until they finish. And it’s probably going to take 10 days. It’s impossible to guess really.”
The fires began last Tuesday and engulfed Lahaina in western Maui. More than 2,200 structures have been destroyed in the town, at an estimated cost already put at $5.5bn, according to a report released over the weekend by the Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The overall economic cost could reach as high as $7bn, according to a study released on Monday by Moody’s Analytics, driven by property damage. “The price tag is astronomical in the context of Maui’s size, as annual output is about $10bn,” Moody’s analysts Adam Kamins and Katie Nied wrote.
Maui officials said on Monday that the Lahaina fire was now 85 per cent contained. Other smaller outbreaks on the island were also gradually being brought under control or extinguished.
US President Joe Biden last week declared a major disaster in the state and ordered federal aid to support the affected areas.
“As residents of Hawaii mourn the loss of life and devastation taking place across their beautiful home, we mourn with them,” Biden wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Monday. “Like I’ve said, not only our prayers are with those impacted — but every asset we have will be available to them.”
Officials have told tourists to stay away from Maui, Hawaii’s second largest island and a popular holiday destination. About 46,000 people had been flown out of Kahului Airport since Wednesday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said over the weekend.
Shares in Hawaiian Electric, the state’s main power supplier, closed 34 per cent lower on Monday after a lawsuit filed over the weekend alleged the company had “inexcusably kept their power lines energised during forecasted high fire danger conditions”.
Andrew Bischof, an analyst at Morningstar, said the market reaction was a “key near-term concern” for the company, as it contended with the fallout.
The state’s attorney-general has been tasked with carrying out a comprehensive review of decisions made ahead of and in response to the fires.
Strong winds from Hurricane Dora, which passed hundreds of miles to the south of the island, fanned the flames. The devastation in Hawaii has come during a summer of unusually high wildfire activity in Canada and authorities said July was the hottest month on record globally.
The number of people unaccounted remains more than 1,000 but has fallen in recent days after temporary mobile hotspots were set up to boost reception.
“As we put up some temporary cell capacity people are calling each other so the number of missing went from in the two-thousands down to 1,300,” said Green.