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More than 2 weeks after Maui fires, families are desperate to learn relatives' fate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More than two weeks after Maui's deadly wildfire, 115 people have been confirmed dead, but more than a thousand are still unaccounted for. Family members are desperate to find out if their loved ones survived. Some are flying to Hawaii to post missing signs and scour hotels. They say it's a frustrating process. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is in Maui and joins us now to talk about this. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi.

FADEL: So a thousand people - that means a thousand families still searching for their relatives. What are you hearing from those families that still don't know if their loved ones died in this fire?

LUDDEN: Yeah. Well, our producer Kira Wakeam spoke with Kimberly Buen. She's a native Hawaiian who lives in California, and she's been trying to get information on her dad, Maurice. He lived in senior housing. He has diabetes. A couple days before the fire, they talked about how his foot was swollen. Now, Buen says relatives in Hawaii have sent DNA samples to help make a match with any remains. And she's been calling multiple agencies for any updates all the time, she says, and finds the lack of information upsetting.

KIMBERLY BUEN: What is it, 14, 15 days? And I feel like I've done more work looking for my dad than any of these people that say they're there to help.

LUDDEN: Now, the Maui police and FBI have acknowledged there is frustration and confusion. At a news conference Tuesday, they said their list of the missing has been compiled by multiple agencies. There's not a lot of information for some people on it, and they're working to verify things and make the list as accurate as possible. Also, officials have not released the names on this list, but they say they will soon. And there is a separate Facebook site that's been crowdsourced and is naming people.

FADEL: Now, at one point, this list was twice as long. So obviously, some people have found their family members. What do they say?

LUDDEN: Yes. Well, they say this process also can be a bit chaotic. Dana Condrey just found her brother Monday. She also lives in California. But after getting nowhere with phone calls, she decided to come to Hawaii on Sunday. She went to a family assistance center that's been set up. She put a sign up about her brother. She spoke face-to-face with a Red Cross official. And that very night, that same Red Cross person called to say they had found her brother. It turned out, he'd been sleeping on a beach and had no working cellphone. So it was really great news. But the Red Cross had actually placed him in that hotel three days earlier.

DANA CONDREY: And I go, well, why weren't we be informed? Every day we call you guys looking for him. Every day, has he checked in anywhere? Any of the hotels? Every day. And nothing.

LUDDEN: And there was more confusion. After this, two different people at the Red Cross called Condrey to ask about her brother because they had no idea she'd already found him. In a statement to NPR, the Red Cross says they go to great lengths to match people, but reunification can take time, and they get the permission of the person they find before they contact any family member.

FADEL: So a story of confusion that ended with something good. He was alive. But that's not the only story we've heard about that kind of confusion. NPR has already reported on a family who found their deceased son in their home, took his body to the police station only to have police tell NPR later that they hadn't had anyone come to them with a body.

LUDDEN: Right. Right. This is a story our colleague Vanessa Romo reported. The family was told someone would be in touch once the boy could be released to a funeral home. But for 13 days, they had no idea where the body was. Very painful. Wednesday, Maui police finally confirmed they had gotten his body. But meanwhile, Leila, all this time, the boy's family had been getting calls from different officers asking if they'd seen their son so that police could take him off their unaccounted for list.

FADEL: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden reporting on so much confusion, so much pain. Thank you so much for your reporting, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL FRANCE'S "THE BREAKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.

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