Charred debris, toxic water, remote towns: Lahaina’s recovery will be a ‘slow process’ | Hawaii fires [wafact]

A long road to recovery lies ahead of Lahaina, the vibrant and historic town tucked along the western coast of Maui that now stands in smoldering ruins.

Roughly 2,700 buildings were destroyed by the wind-whipped flames and at least 101 people have lost their lives. Search and rescue efforts to recover the bodies of the victims, as well as relief efforts to support the thousands of displaced survivors, are at the center of focus. But tons of charred debris will need to be removed from the island before communities can begin to heal.

The challenging, and costly, cleanup of the ashen aftermath could continue to wreak havoc on those already left reeling after the fires. The daunting process can take years even in mainland settings where logistics are far less complicated and systems are already in place to manage large-scale disasters.

“It is not like anything they have dealt with before,” said Brian Ferguson, a deputy director for the California governor’s office of emergency services (CalOES), the agency experienced at managing the complicated layers of recovery that follow catastrophic wildfire.

Across the leveled cityscape in Maui, dangers abound. Along with broken glass, blackened cars and felled power lines, the old buildings – many built decades ago – are laced with poisons, from asbestos to lead paint. Arsenic, once used as an herbicide for now-abandoned sugar and pineapple plantations could still be present across burned landscapes. Black billowing smoke, that shrouded the city-streets adding chaos during the crisis, likely left behind harmful chemicals that cling to fabrics, flow into water systems and collect among the rubble.

“It will be a very challenging phase for an island and they will have to figure out where they can transport all this toxic material,” Ferguson said, adding that California wildfire wreckage often ends up being carted off to specialty sites in Nevada. He expects Hawaii may have to rely on barges but “they are going to have to figure out where to put all the ash and debris”.

Along with a lack of experience, capacity in the sparsely populated state will be strained as the work continues. “The emergency management agency in the whole state of Hawaii is equivalent to the emergency management in a medium-sized city here in California,” Ferguson said. “It will be a long time before people will be able to rebuild in Lahaina because they have to do all these steps that take time and are intensive.”

Plans are only beginning to come together for the next phase in recovery, according to Jeremy Greenberg, the director of operations for response and recovery of the Federal emergency management agency (Fema). Greenberg said federal agencies are actively working with state and local partners to determine how best to handle hazardous waste and other debris.

“There’s a lot of effort ongoing to put that plan in place and once the search area is completed and we are able to move into that phase, we will do that,” he said during a call with reporters on Tuesday. With hundreds of people still unaccounted for, crews and cadaver dogs will continue the painstaking work of combing through debris and identifying victims, a process that will likely stretch into next week, according to officials. By Tuesday morning, only 25% of the roughly 5-mile area had been completed.

The army corps of engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have already begun missions working to clear roads, remove smaller more-obvious hazards, like propane tanks, and assess the scale of the job ahead. Now in the scoping phase, the actual work to begin removing larger debris is still likely weeks away.

CalOES has deployed roughly 150 people to aid Hawaii in its search and rescue efforts, including mass-fatality and debris removal experts for the difficult work ahead.

“The effort at this point is making sure we are protecting the safety of first responders and survivors,” Greenberg said. “That is part of the reason local officials are limiting access to the area where we know there are hazardous materials.”

Carcasses of cars can be seen among the ashes of a burnt neighborhood in the aftermath wildfires in Lahaina.
Carcasses of cars can be seen among the ashes of a burnt neighborhood in the aftermath wildfires in Lahaina. Photograph: Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images
Volunteers unload ice and cooler donations at a distribution center at Honokawai Beach Park in Napili-Honokowai in Hawaii.
Volunteers unload ice and cooler donations at a distribution center at Honokawai Beach Park in Napili-Honokowai in Hawaii. Photograph: Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images

Officials are concerned that residents trying to return to their lost or damaged homes are at risk of exposure to contaminated ash and dangers posed by significant structural instability. “We understand the intense need for people to go back to their homes,” said Diana Felton, Hawaii’s state toxicologist who has been on the ground overseeing the initial response phase. “But we don’t want anymore illness or injury related to this event.”

She said efforts are still focused on response and relief but initial phases of cleanup have begun. Experts have deployed from across the country to aid in the work, but it will be slow. Hawaii does not have any hazardous waste landfills so everything will need to be shipped to the mainland.

“Everyone is working so hard to try to help the folks of Maui and to try to get things moving on cleanup and recovery,” she said. “But it is going to be a long process.”

Dr Andrew Whelton, professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University echoed the concerns. An expert who has advised recovery efforts in other catastrophic burns, including after the 2018 Camp fire that swept through Paradise, California, and the 2021 Marshall fire in Boulder county, Colorado, Whelton outlined the many steps required before the community can begin to rebuild.

Crews clad in hazmat suits will likely start by surrounding scorched properties with fencing or other materials to ensure debris and contaminants don’t slip into stormwater drains. Misting the rubble with hoses to keep hazardous particles down, they will then begin collecting and hauling it away. Even concrete foundations can be damaged by heat, and many may have to be broken up and removed. Whelton expects most of what burned will have to be carted off the island.

“It’s going to depend on what the consistency of it is,” Whelton said, adding that household hazardous waste will have to be separated and tested. “That will determine what landfill they will bring it to.”

Even after the wreckage is cleared, the burn scar itself must be scraped away to ensure the soil is safe – at least 6in of soil typically must be removed, Whelton said. Then crews will test the land for a series of heavy metals – roughly 18 potentially toxic substances, including chromium, arsenic, lead and zinc – to ensure properties can be released back to owners.

While Hawaii has dealt with disasters before, there will be challenges associated with adapting to the enormous need in this cleanup effort. “There are certainly experts in Hawaii that understand solid and hazardous waste management,” Whelton said, “but they do not have the experience associated with managing the removal and disposal of debris when entire towns burn down.”

Destroyed homes and buildings burned to the ground around the harbor and Front Street in the historic town of Lahaina.
Destroyed homes and buildings burned to the ground around the harbor and Front Street in the historic town of Lahaina. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

In other urban areas where firestorms have claimed homes and businesses, cleanup efforts lagged, causing massive frustration and further displacement. It took roughly three months following the 2021 Marshall fire, which destroyed more than a 1,000 homes and seven commercial buildings, before debris removal even began. After other tragedies, including the 2018 Camp fire, many impacted residents from Paradise California opted not to return.

There are growing concerns for where Maui’s impacted residents will be housed while they wait, especially native Hawaiians who have already faced rising costs and other displacement issues making it more difficult to remain on the land they are culturally and generationally connected to.

“It is going to be a slow process for Lahaina to be cleaned up and rebuilt,” Whelton said, adding that there’s still a significant issue associated with water contamination that will need to be addressed. Still, despite the immense challenges that remain, Whelton has hope for Hawaii. “I have seen community after community recover from this scale of disaster,” he said. The process will take time, but agencies more equipped to build back after each devastating wildfire. “We have learned a lot before to help Maui now.”

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