Biden Says He Plans to Visit Hawaii to See Damage From Maui Wildfires

President Joe Biden said he intends to travel to Hawaii with first lady Jill Biden as soon as possible amid mounting pressure to see firsthand the devastation from wildfires in Maui.

(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden said he intends to travel to Hawaii with first lady Jill Biden as soon as possible amid mounting pressure to see firsthand the devastation from wildfires in Maui.

“My wife Jill and I are going to travel to Hawaii as soon as we can,” Biden said Tuesday in Milwaukee ahead of a speech on his economic agenda. 

The president said he had spoken to Governor Josh Green about the wildfires — the US’s deadliest in more than a century — and wanted to ensure a visit did not interrupt recovery efforts, with the death toll now at 99 and searches continuing for the missing.

“That’s what I’ve been talking to the governor about. I don’t want to get in the way,” Biden said. “I’ve been to too many disaster areas. But I want to go, make sure we got everything they need. Want to be sure we don’t disrupt the ongoing recovery efforts.”

Biden’s remarks aimed to end a simmering controversy over the White House response to the disaster. The president was asked about the rising death toll while he was at the beach in Delaware over the weekend. He told reporters “no comment,” before heading home, a remark that sparked criticism from conservative media circles.

Searchers accompanied by 20 cadaver dogs continue to comb the historic seaside town of Lahaina for remains, with 25% of the burned area checked so far.

Read more: Hawaii Governor Doesn’t Want Developers Buying Burned Lahaina

Biden said he had assured Green that the federal government would provide whatever assistance Hawaii required — citing the work being done by FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.

“I had directed her to streamline the process as quickly as possible to help register survivors for immediate federal assistance without delay,” said Biden. Last week, Biden signed a disaster declaration for Hawaii, which released federal funding and delivered additional aid to help state and local recovery efforts.

The wildfires have overshadowed Biden’s plans this week to highlight the one-year anniversary of his signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark climate and tax bill, and revived questions about how the White House decides which communities the president will visit after a tragedy or disaster. 

Biden faced scrutiny earlier this year for not visiting the town of East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed, starting a fire that sent a cloud of smoke over the town.

Republicans said the administration was slow to respond to residents’ worries about contamination as the town became a political flashpoint. Critics cast the administration response — and Biden’s absence in particular — as an example of Democratic neglect of towns in the American heartland. East Palestine is a small, mostly White working-class community.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan both visited the town, but Biden’s absence drew criticism of the White House response.

The wildfires are the latest example of the extreme weather plaguing communities in the US and globally. July was declared the earth’s hottest month on record, as temperatures in some US cities repeatedly exceeded 100F (55.556 degrees Celsius). American cities have also suffered from the effects of wildfires in Canada, which coated the sky with thick, toxic smoke.

Biden has said extreme heat costs the US $100 billion annually, linking it directly to climate change. Biden has used the spate of extreme weather events to highlight measures in his Inflation Reduction Act to spur a clean energy boom to reduce climate impacts, alongside a broader push to highlight his economic agenda and reverse poor polling on the issue.

Read more here: Biden Says ‘America Is Winning,’ Bashes GOP Pessimism on Economy

Climate activists though are pushing Biden to declare a national climate emergency, a step which would grant him broad powers, including the ability to block crude oil exports and place other curbs on fossil fuels. 

Biden has stopped short of doing so. In a Weather Channel interview last week he said he “practically” had declared an emergency, touting his land conservation policies, decision to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the Inflation Reduction Act. 

–With assistance from Jordan Fabian.

(Updates with additional details from seventh paragraph)

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