Biden says federal government will help Maui recover from wildfires “for as long as necessary.”

LAHAINA, Hawaii, (AP) — President Joe Biden Monday told survivors of the Hawaii wildfires that the nation “mourns with you” and pledged that the federal government will help Maui “for as long as necessary” to recover from the blow-through The wildfires caused damage to recover from the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century.

Biden arrived in Maui 13 days after the wildfires that claimed at least 114 lives in the western part of the island. Standing next to a burned but still standing 150-year-old banyon tree, the president acknowledged the “overwhelming” devastation but said Maui will weather the tragedy.

“Today it burned, but it's still standing,” Biden said of the tree. “The tree survived for a reason. I think it's a very powerful symbol of what we can and will do to get through this crisis.”

Biden and First Lady Jill Biden were able to get an up-close look at the devastation the blaze was wreaking on the western part of the Hawaiian island and see for themselves the hollowed-out homes, buildings, charred cars and scorched trees left by the fire.

The Bidens paused briefly on the tarmac after arriving at Kahului Airport to comfort Hawaii Governor Josh Green and his wife Jaime Green, as well as members of the Hawaii congressional delegation who came to the airport to greet them. The President and First Lady hugged each of their greeters before boarding Marine One for a scenic flight over the devastation caused by the fires.

They spent most of their visit in Lahaina, a historic town of 13,000 that was virtually destroyed by the blaze. His motorcade meandered through the settlement of block after block, houses and buildings hollowed out, palm trees burned to endless, crusty debris.

The Bidens also met with first responders and were briefed on the ongoing response by state and local officials. They also attended the blessing of his visit by the island's elders.

The Bidens broke a week-long vacation in the Lake Tahoe area for the five-hour flight to Lahaina.

The White House announced Monday that Biden has appointed Bob Fenton, a regional head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as chief coordinator for the federal response to the Maui wildfires, to ensure someone in his administration is in charge of long-term recovery efforts will be. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, where almost every building has been destroyed.

“We will rebuild the way the people of Maui want it,” Biden said, adding that his administration will focus on respect for sacred lands, cultures and traditions.

Dozens gathered on the streets of Lahaina to watch Biden's motorcade meander through the streets. Some greeted the President enthusiastically, others seemed to wave a middle finger at the motorcade. Other islanders held up signs urging Biden to “listen to the people of Lahaina” and send more aid to the island.

Biden has been criticized by Republicans, including 2024 Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, for saying too little in the early days after the disaster. However, the White House fought back the criticism, saying the president has kept in close contact with the governor and other emergency officials throughout the unfolding crisis.

Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said as of Sunday about 85% of the affected area had been searched and nearly 2,000 people remained without power and 10,000 without telecommunications connectivity. Water is undrinkable in parts of West Maui.

While emergency aid like water, food and blankets were readily distributed to residents, Schatz said cell phones, ID cards and other documents people would need to enroll in longer-term aid programs were burned in the fires, making the situation even more challenging application process.

Green said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation that “an army of search and rescue teams” with 41 dogs had covered the affected area.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a social media post Sunday that 27 victims have been identified and 11 families have been notified of the losses. The FBI and Maui County Coroner's Office are working together to identify the recovered remains.

Bissen said 850 names were on a missing persons list and drew hope from the fact that the original list contained more than 2,000 names.

“We are both saddened and relieved by these numbers as we continue the recovery process,” Bissen said. “The number of those identified will increase, the number of missing could decrease.”

According to the White House, more than 1,000 federal officers remain on the ground responding to the wildfires in Hawaii. The administration has distributed more than $8.5 million in relief funds to approximately 8,000 affected families, including $3.6 million in rental subsidies, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said.

Schatz, who joined Biden Monday, emphasized that officials were “still responding to the disaster” and “we are not yet in a recovery phase.”

“As bad as it looks, it's actually worse,” he said in a phone interview on Sunday. “What you don't see is the damage to the supply infrastructure. What you can't see are the thousands of kids trying to figure out how to get to school this fall. What you don't see are the first responders who, with no regard for their own safety, went into the flames and allowed their own homes to burn down.”

While on vacation in Lake Tahoe, Biden made regular calls to officials to get updates on wildfire response, the White House said.


Associated Press writer Claire Rush of Portland, Oregon contributed to this report.

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