Biden got a close look at the ruins in Lahaina, a historic town of 13,000 people that was almost consumed by the fire.
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California — President Joe Biden on Monday told Hawaii wildfire survivors the nation was “grieved with you” and promised that the federal government would help “to the extent” Maui recovers from wildfire damage. The most horrifying in America in more than a century.
Biden arrived in Maui 13 days after fires ravaged the western part of the island, killing at least 115 people. Stand close to someone with severe burns 150 years old banyan treeThe president acknowledged the extent of the devastation was “too great” but said Maui would persevere through the tragedy.
Biden said of the tree: “It burned down today but it’s still standing. The tree exists for a reason. I believe it is a 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, seeing block after row of empty houses and other structures, burned cars, scorched trees and piles of debris as the caravan His car passed through Lahaina. They spend most of their time in historic town out of 13,000 people were almost burned by the fire.
The Bidens lingered briefly on the tarmac after arriving at Kahului Airport to comfort Hawaii Governor Josh Green, his wife Jaime Green, and members of the Hawaiian congressional delegation who greeted them. The president and first lady gave each other a warm hug before they boarded Marine One helicopter to inspect the aerial damage.
The Bidens also met with first responders and members of the community, and were briefed on the ongoing response by state and local officials. They also joined in blessing his visit by the island elders. They interrupted week-long vacation in Lake Tahoe Lahaina sightseeing area.
Early Monday, the White House announced that Biden had named Bob Fenton, a regional leader in Federal Emergency Management Agency, became the lead federal response coordinator for the Maui wildfires, overseeing the long-term recovery. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, where nearly every building has been destroyed.
“We will rebuild the way the people of Maui want to rebuild,” Biden said, adding that his administration will focus on respecting sacred lands, cultures and traditions.
Dozens of people gathered on Lahaina street to watch Biden’s motorcade pass through the community. Some greeted the president enthusiastically, but others appeared to be waving their middle fingers at the motorcade. Other islanders held up signs urging Biden to “listen to the people of Lahaina” and send more aid.
During a community event at the Lahaina civic center, Biden praised the “remarkable resilience” he said he saw during a few hours in the community.
The President also spoke, as he often does when speaking to communities affected by tragedy, about understanding the personal weight of great loss and the slow and painful recovery process. Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, died in a car crash in 1972. He lost an adult son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.
“When things look bleak, that’s when we need faith,” said Biden, who spent 70 minutes after his speech speaking to community members.
Biden has faced criticism from some Republicans, including the 2024 Republican lead. Donald Trump, for speaking so little in the first days after the disaster. The White House, however, countered, saying the president acted quickly and stayed in close contact with the governor and other emergency response officials as the crisis unfolded.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said that as of Sunday, about 85% of the affected area had been searched and nearly 2,000 people were still without electricity and 10,000 people without phones and internet. The water in parts of western Maui is not safe to drink.
While immediate aid such as water, food and blankets has been easily distributed to residents, Schatz said cell phones, IDs and other documents people need to help them enroll in services. Long-term aid programs were burned in the fire, adding challenges to the application process.
During his tour, Biden walked down a street where many Lahaina residents had struggled to escape the blaze.
A search and rescue army with dozens of dogs has covered the area to aid in the recovery effort. White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said between 500 and 800 people were still missing. Mayor Richard Bissen earlier on Monday put the number of people missing at 850. Sherwood-Randall said the FBI had sent experts to Maui to assist with identification efforts.
Sherwood-Randall added that Biden, who has toured many communities devastated by extreme weather disasters during his presidency, focused during the visit “on the human experience” and “very much” impatient with the bureaucracy”.
Sherwood-Randall said of Biden’s focus: “How quickly can we move to help those in need, and in particular, how can we help those who are most struggling in this situation? access to that assistance?”.
According to the White House, more than 1,000 federal officials are still on the scene responding to the wildfires. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said the administration has distributed more than $8.5 million in aid to about 8,000 affected families, including $3.6 million in rent assistance.
Schatz, who accompanied Biden on Monday, stressed that officials are “still responding to the disaster” and that “we’re not at the recovery stage yet.”
He said in a phone interview on Sunday: “While this looks bad, it’s actually worse. “What you can’t see is damage to utility infrastructure. What you can’t see are thousands of children trying to find their way to school this fall. What you can’t see is the first responders who rushed into the flames without regard for their own safety and set their own homes on fire.”