KAHULUI, Hawaii – Daylight brought the scope of the disaster in Hawaii into focus Wednesday as a pilot flew around devastated parts of Maui that were changed beyond recognition due to wind-driven brush fires.
Richard Olsten is the owner and operator of Air Maui Helicopter Tours and is usually busy showing people the beauty of the islands, but less than 24 hours after fires raged, the only scenes left were smoldering homes and businesses.
"Unbelievable! This looks like Baghdad," Olsten can be heard telling his fellow occupants of the helicopter in a video of the flight.
Olsten was hovering above Lahaina, which is usually one of the most populated communities on the western side of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands.
As far as the eye could see, burning rubble was the only evidence that remained of buildings that once surrounded the harbor.
"Oh, my goodness, look at all these houses," Olsten stated as smoke rose from the rubble.
It was from some of these buildings that residents and visitors took it upon themselves to jump into the Pacific to escape the inferno. Those that sought shelter in the ocean were rescued by Coast Guard crews, but not all were as fortunate.
During a Wednesday news conference, officials announced they had found the bodies of at least six people and gave indications that there would likely be more heartbreak to come.
"Nobody was prepared for this … Local people have lost everything," said James Tokioka, the director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. "They’ve lost their house. They’ve lost their animals, and it’s devastating."
Videos taken by Olsten and others back up these claims with scenes reminiscent of historic fires that have impacted California over the years.
The apparent difference is the Golden State has what can be described as an army of firefighters, ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice to help protect lives and property against Mother Nature’s fury.
The National Weather Service office in Honolulu issued fire weather alerts ahead of the blazes, but with a hurricane churning more than 500 miles away from the islands, satellite imagery and the forecast cone likely provided some with a false sense of comfort that weather forces wouldn't merge into a firestorm.
Hundreds of homes and businesses are believed to be damaged or destroyed not only on Maui but throughout the chain of more than half a dozen inhabited islands that make up the country’s 50th state.
While the task ahead looks daunting, Maui County’s mayor promised the island would bounce back from the most significant disaster to strike the islands since Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
"We will rebuild, and we will again support each other," said Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. "This is a time for us to come together. This is a time for us to care for each other in our county."
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