United States President Joe Biden has told survivors of Hawaii’s deadly wildfires that the nation “grieves with you” as he promised federal assistance “for as long as it takes”.
Biden arrived in Maui on Monday, 13 days after the wildfires ravaged the western part of the island. The fires – the deadliest the US has seen in more than a century – have killed at least 114 people.
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Standing near a burned – but still standing – 150-year-old banyan tree, the president acknowledged the “overwhelming” devastation but said that Maui would persevere through the tragedy.
“Today it’s burned, but it’s still standing,” Biden said of the tree. “The tree survived for a reason. I believe it’s a very powerful symbol of what we can and will do to get through this crisis.”
Biden and First Lady Jill Biden got a close look at the devastation wrought by the flames that ripped through Maui, seeing for themselves the hollowed homes, structures, charred cars and singed trees left in the wake of the blaze.
The Bidens lingered briefly on the tarmac after arriving at Kahului Airport to console Hawaii Governor Josh Green and his wife Jaime Green as well as members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation who came to the airport to greet them. The president and first lady embraced each of their greeters before boarding Marine One for an aerial tour of the devastation caused by the fires.
They spent most of their visit in Lahaina, a historic town of 13,000 people, which was virtually destroyed by the flames. The Bidens’ motorcade wound through the community of block upon block of hollowed-out homes and structures, palm trees burned to a crisp and endless debris.
The Bidens met with first responders and were briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response. They also took part in a blessing by island elders of their visit.
The Bidens interrupted a weeklong vacation in the Lake Tahoe area for the five-hour flight to Lahaina.
The White House announced on Monday that Biden has named Bob Fenton, a regional leader at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to be the chief federal response coordinator for the Maui wildfires, ensuring that someone from his administration will be responsible for long-term recovery efforts. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, where just about every building was obliterated.
“We’re going to rebuild the way the people of Maui want to rebuild,” said Biden, adding that his administration would be focused on respecting sacred lands, cultures and traditions.
Dozens gathered on the streets of Lahaina to watch the Bidens’ motorcade wind its way through the streets. Some greeted the president enthusiastically, but others appeared to be waving their middle fingers at the motorcade. Other island residents held up signs urging Biden “to listen to the people of Lahaina” and to send more aid to the island.
Biden has faced criticism from Republicans, including 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, for saying too little during the first days after the catastrophe. The White House, however, has pushed back against the criticism, saying the president kept in close touch with the governor and other emergency officials throughout the unfolding crisis.
Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said that, as of Sunday, about 85 percent of the affected area had been searched and nearly 2,000 people remained without power and 10,000 were without telecom connectivity. Water in parts of west Maui is not safe to drink.
While immediate aid such as water, food and blankets has been readily distributed to residents, Schatz said mobile phones, ID and other documents that people would need to help them enrol in longer-term aid programs were burned in the fires, adding challenges to the application process.
Green said on the CBS TV show Face the Nation that “an army of search and rescue teams” with 41 dogs had blanketed the affected area.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a social media post on Sunday that 27 victims had been identified and 11 families were notified of the losses. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as well as the Maui County medical examiner and coroner’s office are working together to identify the recovered remains.
Bissen said 850 names were on a list of missing people but he took hope from the fact that the initial list contained more than 2,000 names.
“We are both saddened and relieved about these numbers as we continue the recovery process,” Bissen said. “The number of identified will rise, and the number of missing may decrease.”
More than 1,000 federal officials remain on the ground to respond to the wildfires in Hawaii, according to the White House.
The administration has distributed more than $8.5m in aid to some 8,000 affected families, including $3.6 million in rental assistance, said Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell.
Schatz, who joined Biden on Monday, stressed that officials were “still responding to the disaster” and “we are not yet in a recovery phase”.
“As bad as this looks, it’s actually worse,” he said in a phone interview on Sunday. “What you can’t see is the damage to utility infrastructure. What you can’t see is the thousands of kids who are trying to figure out how to go to school this fall. What you can’t see is the first responders who went into the flames without regard for their own safety and had their own homes burned down.”
While vacationing in Lake Tahoe, Biden has been on the phone regularly with officials to get briefed on updates to the wildfire response, the White House said.