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Families of Hawaii’s Missing Wait for Answers

Families of Hawaii’s Missing Wait for Answers


Terri Thomas’s family has been waiting for days.

Ms. Thomas, a beloved aunt with a great smile who loved outdoor adventures, was last heard from on Tuesday as fires overwhelmed Lahaina, Hawaii, her longtime home.

Witness accounts relayed to the family have led relatives to believe the worst. But nearly a week after the fire started, Ms. Thomas’s relatives remain in excruciating suspense, without any official news on her status and little sense of when, or even if, they might hear from the government.

“It’s tragic — this hopeless feeling,” said Ms. Thomas’s niece, Terra Thomas, who lives in North Carolina. She said she understood the difficulty of the situation, “but I feel like there could be better communication, especially when it comes to the people that are now presumed missing.”

The search for people killed in the wildfire, the country’s deadliest in more than a century, and the effort to identify the 93 found so far has moved slowly.

As of Saturday, officials had confirmed the identities of only two victims and had barely started searching the disaster zone with canine teams. Officials attributed the pace of the response, which many residents have criticized as too slow, to the overwhelming nature of the destruction and to Maui’s remoteness, which complicated the arrival of out-of-state search teams.

“The heat of the fire, the intensity and the speed of the fire — it literally just stopped everything in its tracks,” said Representative Jill Tokuda, a Democrat, who represents Maui in Congress. “It’s going to make identification and notification really difficult,” she said, adding that “it’s painful just to think about that.”

For days now, families have struggled to learn the status of loved ones in West Maui. Spotty-to-nonexistent phone reception, especially in the immediate aftermath, made it hard for survivors to contact loved ones. Roadblocks prevented people from other parts of the island from looking themselves.

For some residents, agonizing waits have ended in relief. Noelle Manriquez, who lost her house in Lahaina but made it to safety with her husband and three children, said it took three days for her to learn her parents had also survived. That time, she said, was “very hard, very stressful.”

Others have had heard nothing.

Chief John Pelletier of the Maui Police Department urged people searching for loved ones to take a DNA test that could help identify their remains.

“The remains we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal,” Chief Pelletier said. “We have to do rapid DNA to identify.”

Terra Thomas said she was open to taking such a test if it might provide answers about her aunt, who loved living in Lahaina and was a mother figure in the lives of her nieces.

Terri Thomas.Credit…Family photo

But Terri Thomas, 62, had no family in Hawaii, meaning there is no one to go to the support center on Maui to give a DNA sample to the authorities. And when Terra Thomas, who lives more than 4,000 miles away, has called seeking information, she said she has encountered “busy phone lines and unavailability.”

State and county officials did not provide information about Ms. Thomas’s status when asked by The New York Times on Sunday.

Interviews and social media posts make clear that large numbers of people with ties to Maui endured days of uncertainty about the status of friends and loved ones. Those waits were also agonizing for survivors like Harry and Toni Troupe, who made it to safety but had no way to relay that news.

The Troupes fled their home in Lahaina on Tuesday night with their two huskies, evacuating to a spot north of town before they were told once again to move further from the flames. They slept in their cars on a dirt road.

On Wednesday, they slept at a friend’s house in Napili-Honokowai, but neither they nor their hosts had cell service, internet or electricity.

It was not until Thursday night that they were able to get their cellphones to work just long enough for Ms. Troupe to see the 63 increasingly frantic texts from friends and family members, asking whether she was safe.

One of those texts was from a cousin in Ohio, informing Ms. Troupe that she planned to list her as a missing person if she did not hear back soon. The cousin eventually did so, posting about the couple on Facebook and asking if anyone had seen them.

“We were on the missing list, but finally people started to get ahold of us,” Ms. Troupe, 62, said, adding that she had heard from people in the Midwest and Bali.

Once the couple was able to inform loved ones they were safe, the social media attention proved helpful. A friend who saw the Facebook post offered a house in Napili-Honokowai, in West Maui, where the pair is staying now with their dogs.

A few days ago, the couple drove down the highway to Lahaina, staring from the distance at the rubble of their neighborhood, including the ashes of their house. They had no desire to get any closer.

“We were so numb to the whole thing,” said Mr. Troupe, 66. “We just couldn’t believe it happened.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.


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