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Ryan Robertson

Anchor, Investigative Reporter

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U.S.

US Navy divers find ‘eerie scenes’ in search for Maui wildfire victims

Aug 30, 2023

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Ryan Robertson

Anchor, Investigative Reporter

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It’s been three weeks since a deadly wildfire scorched a path of destruction on Maui. The small town of Lahaina bore the brunt of the fire, and the search for remains there is nearing its conclusion.

A team of 21 U.S. Navy divers wrapped up its search efforts the week of Aug. 27. The divers were searching in the waters of Lahaina’s harbor after Maui county officials called for assistance.

Defense One reported some of the divers described “eerie” scenes under the water.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Sephten Clevenger said, “Getting in the water and first seeing the boats, they’re toppled on top of each other.”

Clevenger said there are the remains of about 20 boats in the harbor. The vessels vary in lengths between 10 and 35 feet.

“Going through a couple of the boats, it’s quite tragic to see what happened to them,” Clevenger told Defense One.

Clevenger and the other divers are from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1. They mapped the harbor with sonar and took video of the complex scene. The team will now remain on standby, ready to respond again if needed once large pieces of wreckage and debris are removed.

The local government on Maui is facing criticisms of being slow to respond after the fire. In the immediate aftermath, The Washington Post reported much of the aid response was organized by a network of grassroots volunteers on the island.

But when it was called in to help, the U.S. military answered quickly. The Navy divers were on the ground in Maui, ready to start searching within 24 hours of being requested.

The Department of Defense has close to 700 active duty, Reserve, and National Guard personnel helping with aid efforts in Maui. The Coast Guard has roughly another 140 Coast Guardsmen helping as well.

A combined joint task force headed by the U.S. Army Pacific Command is overseeing all of the DOD’s response efforts to the Maui wildfires. Task Force 50 assigned personnel to assist in six different missions for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

U.S. military personnel are helping in air and sea transportation, search and recovery efforts, debris removal and temporary power generation. Some are even helping local law enforcement with security efforts and traffic control.

Sgt. Sir Angelo Onangan is a member of the Hawaii National Guard and from Maui. He said, “To be a part of the National Guard, especially during a natural disaster time, is a heartfelt kind of thing. I mean, seeing them in despair makes you really want to be in there with them and help them out as much as you can.”

Air crews from Hawaii’s National Guard are still dumping water on what’s left of the wildfires. The Navy and Marines also have air assets on standby, ready to dump more water if needed. The 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment has also been made available to assist in recovery efforts.

Because of the type of natural disaster this was, a fast-moving wildfire, most of the military response was reactionary. On the other side of the globe, but still in U.S. territory, the U.S. military is readying another natural disaster response in Florida as Hurricane Idalia bears down.

The Florida National Guard is already active and mobilizing close to 5,000 Guardsmen. They’ll be positioned across the state and ready to respond as necessary.

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IT’S BEEN THREE WEEKS SINCE A DEADLY WILDFIRE SCORCHED A PATH OF DESTRUCTION ON MAUI. THE SMALL TOWN OF LAHAINA BORE THE BRUNT OF THE FIRE, AND THE SEARCH FOR REMAINS THERE IS NEARING ITS CONCLUSION.

A TEAM OF 21 NAVY DIVERS WRAPPED UP THEIR SEARCH EFFORTS THIS WEEK. THE DIVERS WERE SEARCHING THE WATERS IN LAHAINA’S HARBOR AFTER MAUI COUNTY OFFICIALS CALLED FOR ASSISTANCE.

THE DIVERS DESCRIBED EERIE SCENES UNDER THE WATER OF BURNED BOATS STACKED ON TOP OF EACH OTHER. THE DIVERS, FROM MOBILE DIVING AND SALVAGE UNIT 1, MAPPED THE HARBOR WITH SONAR AND TOOK VIDEO. DIVERS SAID THERE WERE ABOUT 20 PARTIALLY INTACT VESSELS UNDER THE WATER.

THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT ON MAUI IS FACING CRITICISMS OF BEING SLOW TO RESPOND AFTER THE FIRE. IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH, MUCH OF THE AID RESPONSE WAS ORGANIZED BY A NETWORK OF GRASSROOT VOLUNTEERS ON MAUI.

BUT WHEN IT WAS CALLED IN TO HELP, THE MILITARY ANSWERED QUICKLY. THE NAVY DIVERS WERE ON THE GROUND IN MAUI, READY TO START SEARCHING WITHIN 24 HOURS OF BEING REQUESTED.

THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE HAS CLOSE TO 700 ACTIVE DUTY, RESERVE, AND NATIONAL GUARD PERSONNEL HELPING WITH AID EFFORTS IN MAUI. THE COAST GUARD HAS ANOTHER 140 OR SO GUARDSMEN HELPING AS WELL.

A COMBINED JOINT TASK FORCE HEADED BY THE US ARMY PACIFIC COMMAND IS OVERSEEING ALL OF THE DOD’S RESPONSE EFFORTS TO THE MAUI WILDFIRES. TASK FORCE 50 ASSIGNED PERSONNEL TO ASSIST IN SIX DIFFERENT MISSIONS FOR THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY.

THE MILITARY IS HELPING IN AIR AND SEA TRANSPORTATION, SEARCH AND RECOVERY EFFORTS, DEBRIS REMOVAL AND TEMPORARY POWER, EVEN HELPING LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT WITH SECURITY EFFORTS AND TRAFFIC CONTROL.

Sgt. Sir Angelo Onangan: To be a part of the National Guard, especially during a natural disaster time, is a heartfelt kind of thing. I mean, seeing them in despair makes you really want to be in there with them and help them out as much as you can.

CREWS FROM HAWAII’S NATIONAL GUARD ARE STILL DUMPING WATER ON WHAT’S LEFT OF THE WILDFIRES. THE NAVY AND MARINES ALSO HAVE AIR ASSETS ON STANDBY, READY TO DUMP MORE WATER IF NEEDED. THE THIRD MARINE LITTORAL REGIMENT HAS ALSO BEEN MADE AVAILABLE TO ASSIST IN RECOVERY EFFORTS.

BECAUSE OF THE TYPE OF NATURAL DISASTER THIS WAS, A FAST-MOVING WILDFIRE, MOST OF THE MILITARY RESPONSE WAS REACTIONARY. ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GLOBE BUT STILL IN US TERRITORY, THE U.S. MILITARY IS READYING ANOTHER NATURAL DISASTER RESPONSE IN FLORIDA AS HURRICANE IDALIA BEARS DOWN.

THE FLORIDA NATIONAL GUARD IS ALREADY ACTIVE AND MOBILIZING CLOSE TO 5,000 GUARDSMEN. THEY’LL BE POSITIONED ACROSS THE STATE AND READY TO RESPOND AS NECESSARY.

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