A team of Navy divers is assisting with the relief efforts in Maui as the island recovers from massive, deadly wildfires.
The three-person mobile diving salvage unit from U.S. Pacific Fleet, which arrived this week just 24 hours after the Maui Fire Department requested them, are searching for remains and conducting underwater surveying for salvage operations in Lahaina Harbor, according to Army Col. David Fielder, the Joint Task Force 5-0 deputy commander.
“They provide an expeditionary and deployable diving and salvage operation for the harbor here and the waterway,” Fielder told reporters Thursday.
The divers are among the more than 600 Defense Department personnel and Coast Guardsmen working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Hawaii in response to the wildfires.
JTF 5-0 continues to maintain traffic-control points and conduct 24-hour security operations in Lahaina in coordination with local law enforcement.
The U.S. Coast Guard is also partnering with dive teams from the Maui Fire Department to reduce repercussions to the maritime environment, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Tuesday.
The fires on Maui destroyed the historic seaside community of Lahaina. The number of confirmed dead now stands at 115, but Maui County officials expect it to rise. Officials said Wednesday that 1,000 to 1,100 people remain unaccounted for on the FBI’s tentative, unconfirmed list.
Dozens of searchers have been combing a 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) stretch of water for signs of anyone who might have perished. Crews are also searching for remains among the ashes of destroyed businesses and multistory residential buildings.
The affected area is about 85 percent cleared, but the search will take weeks to complete, Fielder said. The additional structures that need clearing also pose challenges because they are multi-dwelling high rise buildings, he said.
“But the last structures they have to clear are going to be extremely complicated,” Fielder said. “They already started mobilizing some equipment to go in there to remove some of the structures to get to the remains. The very earliest projection (is that) we’re talking weeks — it’s not going to be days — to get through all that.”
Fielder said that additional resources may also be called in to respond to relief operations, if needed.
“We’ve got a lot of assets available,” Fielder said. “We continued to dialogue with the local and the state [officials[ to provide anything they need. We’ve got 25th Infantry Division, the Marine Corps if we need to provide that, and the Navy has got some construction capability, too. If anything is needed, they’ll request it and we are more than happy to provide that support to it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.