Biden Heads to Maui With Over 1,000 Missing Two Weeks After Fire

President Joe Biden aims to showcase federal government support for Maui residents when he visits the fire-stricken island Monday amid criticism of his response to the historic disaster.

(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden aims to showcase federal government support for Maui residents when he visits the fire-stricken island Monday amid criticism of his response to the historic disaster. 

The president and First Lady Jill Biden plan to take a helicopter tour of areas destroyed by the deadliest US wildfires in more than a century and walk the streets of Lahaina, the seaside town that bore the brunt of the devastation, according to a White House official.

The wildfires have claimed at least 114 lives according to an update from Maui County on Sunday. Hawaii Governor Josh Green told CBS about 1050 people are still unaccounted for and searching the remaining wildfire impact zone could take weeks. Federal estimates put the damages at more than $5.5 billion.

The disaster struck after a challenging several years for Hawaii’s economy. The state was among the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic — and subsequent slowdown in travel — because it’s highly reliant on tourism. Since then, the labor market has strengthened and Hawaii’s unemployment rate, at 2.8% in July, was below the national average. But overall, there are fewer people working as total payrolls remain about 3% lower than they were in March of 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

Price levels in the state of Hawaii are at the highest in the country. A measure of the differences in price levels across states found that costs in the Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina metropolitan area were 12% higher than the national average in 2021, the latest data available. Costs were driven by utilities, which are 94% higher, and housing, which costs 30% more on average.

Biden on Monday will receive a briefing on recovery efforts, meet with federal, state and local officials and offer words of comfort to first responders and survivors during a community meeting. 

Ahead of that meeting, Biden will deliver remarks paying respect to those who died and reflect on the damage to Maui, the official said. He will also name Bob Fenton, the top Federal Emergency Management Agency official in the western US, the chief federal response coordinator to oversee the long-term recovery, according to the official.

“Jill and I are eager to meet with the brave first responders in Lahaina tomorrow, to spend time with families and community members, and witness firsthand what will be required for the community to recover. We will be here as long as it takes for Maui,” Biden said Sunday in a statement.

The visit marks a pivotal moment for Biden in the face of one of the worst domestic crises of his presidency. He’ll be traveling to Hawaii just as California deals with potentially catastrophic rain from a rare Pacific storm — the latest evidence of increasing climate risk to the US and beyond.   

Earlier: Biden to Visit Wildfire-Stricken Maui Monday Amid Criticism 

Five days passed before Biden’s first in-person public remarks about the Hawaii fires that started Aug. 8, even as the death toll mounted and people affected by the blaze questioned the government response. He is interrupting a family summer vacation on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe to travel to Hawaii. 

Administration officials have said Biden was involved behind closed doors, receiving daily briefings from his advisers and Hawaii officials and authorizing all necessary federal disaster relief resources. He has also been briefed on emergency preparations related to the West Coast weather, which triggered California’s first-ever tropical storm warning. 

But the president’s quiet posture undercut his image as a compassionate leader and left him open to attacks from political opponents.

The criticism reached a crescendo on Aug. 13 after Biden told reporters “no comment” when asked during a vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, whether he had any message about the deaths in Lahaina.

Read More: Maui Fire Lays Bare Utility Missteps Mirrored Across the Country

“A recovery of this magnitude, it’s going to take time,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Saturday. “But thanks to the president’s leadership and our strong partnership with the state and the local government, I think things are moving in the right direction.”

Biden’s fumble was surprising for a president who has suffered personal losses and used those experiences to lead during tragedies and connect with victims. He’ll have a chance to do that when he sits down privately with people who lost loved ones in the Hawaii fires.

“The president’s presence will convey to the state of Hawaii and the rest of the country that he stands with us,” Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Yet Biden could face tough questions not only about his personal reaction but the government’s response. Some Maui residents have said recovery efforts have appeared disorganized and reported difficulty in accessing food, shelter and assistance funds.

Read More: Fires, Heat Block Biden From Taking Victory Lap for Climate Law

Schatz said the island still has “real challenges,” including more than 10,000 people lacking reliable telecommunications, about 1,000 to 2,000 homes without power and uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year.

Federal officials have said they have brought all necessary funding and personnel to bear. 

More than 1,000 federal personnel were on the ground in Maui as of Saturday to assist with search and rescue efforts and help residents, according to the White House. More than $8 million in federal disaster assistance has been approved, and FEMA has made tens of thousands of meals, liters of water, cots and blankets available to county officials to distribute.

The president will also face a challenge when he returns to Washington to secure more funding for the response to the Maui fires and other natural disasters. While the White House is asking Congress for $12 billion in disaster relief funds for the next fiscal year as part of an emergency spending request, the package’s chances of passage are threatened by House Republican opposition to its Ukraine aid provisions.

Even more money could be needed for disaster recovery depending on the costs of the response to the Maui fires and other potential extreme weather events, Criswell said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. 

–With assistance from Laura Litvan and Alex Tanzi.

(Updates with additional details on impact of fires in paragraphs 3-5)

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