“These are the kind of times that really test you,” said Maui Film Commissioner Tracy Bennett in an interview with Deadline today about the wildfires that have swept the island and, specifically, leveled historic Lahaina Town. Bennett, who has been in the job 10 years, related a number of harrowing details from the past few days, but his chief message was one of strength, hope and community.
“Hawaiians are about Ohana, family,” he said. “In times like this, it really shows their resilience.”
Bennett is hoping that another sort of family, the entertainment community, will also pull together and support Maui in its time of need.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green estimated the cost to rebuild would be in the billions, and some have already stepped up to help. Amazon Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos and fiancée Lauren Sánchez, vice chair of the Bezos Earth Fund, are establishing a $100 million fund to “help Maui get back on its feet now and over the coming years.” Bezos has a home on the island. Oprah Winfrey, who owns more than 2,000 acres on Maui, has been seen handing out pillows and other supplies at a refugee center. A spokesperson for Winfrey told Forbes that Winfrey “will do more, as it becomes clear which funds can be the most helpful for the short-term and long-term rebuilding.” President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for the island, which will free up emergency funds. But it will obviously take a lot more.
Bennett has started a GoFundMe page to benefit those who have been displaced or lost homes or loved ones. Proceeds will go to the Hawaii Community Foundation, and for the animals and pets displaced and injured, the Maui Humane Society. Donations can also be directly made to the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong fund.
The scope of the tragedy is only know coming into focus.
The death toll rose to 67 this afternoon as officials confirmed another 12 fatalities. A New York Times analysis put the number of buildings damaged or destroyed at about 1,900. But that only tells part of the story.
“The list of people who are missing is 1000-2000 right now,” said Bennett before observing, “It’s still so early.” Indeed, the search for victims in the rubble of Lahaina is only now beginning in earnest and, according to everyone from locals like Bennett to Governor Green, the death toll is likely to rise.
As some point fingers at the emergency response and the lack of warning, Bennett offers some startling information. “That fire decimated Lahaina in 17 minutes from the time it started, from my understanding.” If accurate, evacuating a town of 13,000 in that amount of time seems virtually impossible.
One of Bennett’s friends was packing his car to leave, and the flames came on so fast he didn’t even have time to get back to his car to flee. The man literally ran for his life. Luckily, he survived.
Many jumped into the ocean. NBC reported that the Coast Guard rescued 14 people from the water, including two children. By some estimates, some 100 people sought refuge from the flames in the ocean. Many did not make it.