President Joe Biden toured areas of Maui devastated by recent wildfires and where hundreds of people are still missing, calling it an “unimaginable tragedy,” and seeking to reassure residents frustrated by his handling of the disaster.
(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden toured areas of Maui devastated by recent wildfires and where hundreds of people are still missing, calling it an “unimaginable tragedy,” and seeking to reassure residents frustrated by his handling of the disaster.
“Whatever you need, you’re going to get,” Biden said Monday in the historic town of Lahaina, which was ravaged by the fires, vowing to help residents rebuild. “To the people of Hawaii. We’re with you for as long as it takes. I promise you.”
Biden, joined by first lady Jill Biden, saw firsthand the effects of one of the worst disasters to strike the US during his administration. Federal estimates put the damage at more than $5.5 billion.
As the president’s motorcade made its way through the apocalyptic wreckage of Lahaina’s Front Street, incinerated cars and buildings were visible, along with blackened boats in the harbor. Biden spoke near a burnt 150-year banyan tree, pointing to it as a symbol of the town’s resilience and spirit.
“Today, it’s burned. But it’s still standing. 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,” said Biden. For as long as it takes we’re going to be with you. The whole country will be with you.”
The devastation and criticism of his response have presented Biden with one of his toughest domestic challenges, undercutting his public image as a president who has comforted victims of disasters and marshaled the resources of the US government to provide quick assistance.
Speaking about the anger of local people, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii told reporters “the frustration is understandable,” given the lives lost and homes destroyed.
The wildfires have killed at least 114 people, according to Maui County. That toll threatens to rise. Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said there were 500 to 800 people still missing, citing state officials, down from estimates over the weekend of more than 1,000. Sherwood-Randall said the search and rescue was about 90% done and that 40 cadaver dogs have been searching about 2,000 buildings and 4,000 cars.
“May God bless all those we’ve lost. May God find those who we haven’t determined yet,” Biden said.
The disaster poses a new obstacle for Hawaii’s economy, which struggled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that slowed travel to a state heavily dependent on tourism. Hawaii’s labor market has strengthened since then, with the unemployment rate in July at 2.8%, below the national average, but there are fewer people working in the state than in March 2020 when the pandemic took hold.
Read More: Maui Fire Lays Bare Utility Missteps Mirrored Across the Country
Residents also face some of the highest price levels in the country, with costs in the Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina metropolitan area 12% higher than the national average in 2021, the latest data available.
In Lahaina, Biden met with first responders and local leaders, joined by Governor Josh Green, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, the state’s US senators, Schatz and Mazie Hirono, and other lawmakers.
Biden said he was appointing Bob Fenton, the top FEMA official in the Western US, as the chief federal response coordinator to oversee the long-term recovery. Maui residents have said recovery efforts appeared disorganized and that they experienced difficulties in getting food, shelter and assistance funds.
Administration officials said Biden was involved in the response behind closed doors, receiving daily briefings from advisers and Hawaii officials, and authorizing all necessary federal disaster relief.
Biden, wearing a lei presented to him, drew applause at a community meeting at the island’s civic center when he pledged the federal government would “get it done the way you want it done.”
“If anyone would like to speak with me, I’ll stay around,” he said at the end of his remarks. Afterward he went table to table to greet residents, volunteers and first responders.
Biden has often traveled to the sites of natural disasters or tragedies as president to offer sympathy and gauge recovery efforts firsthand. Last October, Biden and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, now a Republican presidential contender, temporarily ignored their political differences to tour areas of the state left in ruins by Hurricane Ian.
Yet his public posture over Maui, in particular telling reporters “no comment,” when asked about the deaths during a vacation in Delaware, left him open to attacks from political opponents, including Republican primary frontrunner Donald Trump.
Read more: Fires, Hurricanes, Heat: The US Reels From a String of Disasters
Federal officials 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 $8.5 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 US is reeling from a series of natural disasters in quick succession. Biden’s visit came as Tropical Storm Hilary hammers Southern California and parts of the Southwest with heavy rains and flooding. The White House on Monday said Biden had also spoken to Washington Governor Jay Inslee about wildfires in his state.
(Updates with Schatz remarks in seventh paragraph, additional Biden remarks in paragraphs 15-16)
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