A view of the devastation left by fires in Lahaina, a resort town on the Hawaiian island of Maui. EFE/EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

Maui resident recounts hours spent in the ocean to escape flames

By Paula Escalada Medrano

Washington, Aug 14 (EFE).- A resident of the resort town destroyed by the historic wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui shared with EFE the terror of spending hours in Pacific Ocean to avoid the flames.

“The time between when I left my apartment and when the fire truck picked me up was about eight hours,” Annelise Cochran said from a shelter in Wailuku.

“For the majority of that time I was on the other side of the seawall exposed to the ocean. Sometimes we tried to climb up the rocks and it was just the waves kind of lapping at us and other times we were fully submerged,” she said, referring to herself and another Lahaina resident.

With 96 confirmed fatalities, the Maui fires are the deadliest blazes in the United States since 1918.

Some of those killed, Cochran said, were “important pillars of our community” whose lives – in her view – were treated by authorities as disposable.

The Washington, DC native, who moved to Hawaii eight years ago planning to stay for six months, echoed the complaints of other survivors about the lack of any warning.

Deployed across Maui are 400 sirens that form part of what Hawaii describes as the world’s largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, but no sirens sounded last Tuesday as the flames approached Lahaina.

“Almost negligence” was how Cochran, the burn marks visible on her face, described authorities’ response to the emergency, pointing to the failure to order evacuations and delays in getting help to residents.

Hawaii’s attorney general, Anne Lopez, announced Saturday that her office will conduct an “exhaustive investigation” of the disaster response.

Cochran, a vessel supervisor with PacWhale Eco-Adventures in Lahaina, said that while her apartment building is still standing, everything inside was reduced to ashes.

Around 3:00 pm last Tuesday, Cochran smelled smoke, but attributed it to ash from an already extinguished fire on the nearby mountain.

An hour later, however, “the sky turned black” and townspeople grew alarmed, many of them jumping in their cars to get away.

Caught in the resulting traffic jam as the flames approached, Cochran and some of her neighbors abandoned their vehicles and headed for the water.

“I would say I was fully submerged in the ocean for perhaps about five hours and the rest of the time was spent kind of exposed to the elements of the ocean and also trying to move myself away from the ocean and closer to the fire to warm my body up, because I was experiencing some hypothermia,” she told EFE.

Cochran watched as the blaze consumed buildings and PacWhale’s boats, and as an 86-year-old man who was among the several dozen people clinging to the rocks died.

Still recovering from her ordeal, Cochran is concerned about what the future holds for Lahaina and its people.

“There are thousands of people displaced from their homes and we are on a very small island, with a very limited number of places people can go,” she said.

EFE pem/dr