In an aerial view, boats destroyed by a wildfire are seen submerged in Lahaina harbor on August 11, 2023 in Maui, Hawaii.

In an aerial view, boats destroyed by a wildfire are seen submerged in Lahaina harbor on August 11, 2023 in Maui, Hawaii. Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Navy divers begin search and underwater survey in Maui

The Defense Department now has 572 people supporting relief efforts after devastating fires.

HONOLULU, Hawaii—U.S. Navy divers entered the waters of Lahaina Harbor on Thursday, as part of the ongoing wildfire recovery and relief efforts on Maui.

The three-person team from U.S. Pacific Fleet is mapping out the sunken boats in the harbor and searching for remains, Joint Task Force 5-0 Deputy Commander Col. David Fielder told reporters. The Pentagon has 572 people on the ground in Maui, including active-duty, Guard, reserve, and civilians, he said. 

That group includes civilians from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, who are helping the local forensics lab with identification and helping in the search for victims, Fielder said. But while authorities have searched roughly 87 percent of the town of Lahaina for remains, he said the remaining structures are mainly high rises that are “extremely complicated” to search, and it will likely take weeks, not just days, to get through them all.

More than 2,200 structures were destroyed and at least 115 people killed in the fires that ravaged the town; on Thursday, Maui County sued Hawaiian Electric Company, accusing the company of negligence for not turning off electrical equipment the day before the fire, despite a National Weather Service red flag warning. 

Fielder also responded to local criticisms that the military has not done enough to help with the relief efforts.

“We stood up this joint task force within 72 hours, and were ready to respond to anything that the mayor had asked for,” he said. “The National Guard had people on site within hours to help with the response. We had helicopters on standby to help with the firefighting…As soon as a request has been given to us, we haven’t been waiting for all the paperwork to go, as long as it’s been a request that we could fulfill.”

The Navy divers were on the ground within 24 hours of being requested by the Maui fire department, Fielder said.

“It may seem slow from the outside, but it’s been going very quickly as needed, as requested by the local and state, who are ultimately in charge of the entire operation.”

Additionally, Fielder said, the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, the Marine Corps, and Navy personnel with construction capabilities are ready to respond, if asked.

“We’ve got a lot of assets available,” he said.