Churchgoers on the island of Maui have described scenes of devastation after wildfires ripped through the town of Lahaina, destroying nearly everything in their path. Pope Francis has expressed his condolences to those affected by the fires that have struck the island of Maui, wreaking devastation and leaving thousands homeless. Drone footage has shown only a few buildings left standing in the town, including Maria Lanakila Catholic church - seemingly miraculously untouched by the flames.
A telegram sent on behalf of the Holy Father, by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, to the Apostolic Nuncio of the United States of America, reads:
"His Holiness Pope Francis was deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life and the destruction caused by the wildfires on the Hawaiian Island of Maui, and he expresses his solidarity with all those suffering from this tragedy, especially those whose loved ones have died or are missing. His Holiness also offers the assurance of prayers for the dead, injured and displaced, as well as for the first responders and emergency personnel. As a sign of his spiritual closeness, the Holy Father willingly invokes upon all the people of Maui Almighty God’s blessings of strength and peace."
President Joe Biden has declared a state of emergency, and Hawaii Governor Josh Green has called the disaster “the largest natural disaster of this generation”.
At least 80 people are known to have died. Rescue crews are continuing their search for survivors. Members of the US military are going door to door with rescue dogs, hoping to find signs of life.
Questions are being raised over why emergency sirens didn't go off. Residents say the first they knew of the flames was when the town of Lahaina was being wiped out by the ferocious blaze. Some people jumped into the Pacific Ocean to escape the fires, holding onto rocks in hurricane winds for hours before being rescued in a situation they describe as being "like Armageddon".
Thousands have found refuge in temporary shelters on the island, many left with only the clothes on their backs. Hundreds of tourists and visitors rushed for the airport, attempting to leave the island normally known for its tropical beaches and laidback lifestyle.
Against a backdrop of palm trees, sandy beaches and turquoise waters, seeing the charred and smoky remains of Lahaina's buildings is bewildering. Those whose houses escaped the scorching path of the fires are opening their homes to those less fortunate. Many are without fuel or food, and are praying the water supply won't be turned off so they can stay hydrated. They're hoping roads will be reopened so they can find gas to power generators. One resident who contacted Premier described the situation as "devastating".
The historic town of Lahaina is steeped in history and used to attract up to 80 percent of Maui's tourism. The town was the home of Hawaiian royalty in 1800's, before the islands became part of the United States. Queen Keopuolani met missionaries there. She became a Christian just before she died in 1823 and is buried in the graveyard at Waiola Church in Lahaina - considered the birthplace of Christianity in Hawaii. The church building is now reported to be part of the rubble.
Pastor Kirk Milhoan, a senior pastor in South Maui, told Calvary magazine: “I’ve been deployed to Iraq twice. Lahaina looks like a war zone. It’s a smoldering mess.”
As survivors begin to piece their lives back together, Christian volunteers from several denominations are offering food, shelter, clothing, and medical assistance as well as prayer to many who've been left with nothing.