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Forest fires on Maui: Joe Biden visits the island of Hawaii after days of criticism

Joe Biden has visited the wildfire-stricken island of Maui – after days of criticism of his response to the crisis.

The President and his wife, First Lady Jill Biden, arrived on the Hawaiian island on Monday — 13 days after wildfires that claimed at least 114 lives and devastated the historic city of Lahaina.

After inspecting the damage, he pledged that the federal government would help Maui recover from the devastation “for as long as it takes.”

“The country mourns with you, stands by your side, and will do whatever it takes to help you recover,” he said in a speech he delivered next to a 150-year-old banyan tree in Old Lahaina, which is used by the fires was burned.

“Today it burned but it's still standing,” Mr. Biden said of the tree.

President Joe Biden speaks after touring the areas devastated by the Maui wildfires Monday, August 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.  AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Mr. Biden gave a speech about the famous banyan tree in Lahaina that was burned by the fire

Hawaii Governor Josh Green hugs President Joe Biden before speaking after touring the areas devastated by the Maui wildfires Monday, August 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Hawaii Governor Josh Green hugs Joe Biden during his visit to Maui. Image: AP

“The tree survived for a reason. I think he is a very powerful symbol of what we can and will do to get through this crisis.”

Criticism of Biden's reaction

This comes after Biden and his administration were criticized for responding to the wildfires – the deadliest in the US in more than a century.

As the president's motorcade meandered through the streets of Lahaina, a protester held up a banner and called for “Relief for Maui Now” while another sign urged Mr Biden to “listen to the people”.

A woman holds a sign as U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visit the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S. August 21, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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A woman holds a sign calling for more relief for Maui during Mr. Biden's visit to the island

People hold up signs as U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visit the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S. August 21, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

This comes after former Democratic Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard compared the response to the wildfires in Hawaii – the US's 50th state – to America's support for Ukraine.

“Maybe if we change the name from Maui to Ukraine, they'll pay attention to us,” she said.

Biden has also been criticized by former President Donald Trump – the current front runner among the Republicans who plans to challenge him in next year's presidential election.

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Maui resident ponders wildfires

Mr Trump said it was “disgraceful” that his successor did not respond more quickly to the crisis.

However, the White House has fought back the criticism, stressing that the president has been in close contact with the governor and other emergency officials on Maui throughout the unfolding crisis.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden walk with Hawaii Governor Josh Green and his wife Jaime Green while visiting areas affected by the Maui wildfires Monday, August 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii were devastated.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Image: AP

More than $8.5 million (£6.6 million) worth of relief supplies have also been distributed to about 8,000 affected families, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Deanne Criswell.

Analysis: Presidential visits to disaster areas are always politically controversial

Remember the 2005 image of George W. Bush looking out an Air Force One window at a devastated New Orleans? It was a cataclysmic moment that quickly went down in presidential history.

Presidential visits to disaster areas are always politically controversial.

If you leave too soon, the charge will be that the entourage will get in the way of rescue and recovery. If you're late, the accusation will be that the president doesn't care enough. Or, in Bush's case, don't go at all.

Optics and sound are drawn on fine lines. Showing sympathy can easily be interpreted as a photo op.

President Biden is a good empathizer, and it showed during this visit to the devastated Hawaiian island of Maui.

As he often does with grieving communities, he reminded them that he knows grief. He recounted how he lost his first wife and young daughter in a car accident in 1972. He remembered wondering how life would go on.

There was criticism of the president because he did not come earlier, had not spoken about it for four days and because the federal government was apparently slow to react.

The presidential election is over a year away, but make no mistake: the brutal US election campaign is in full swing.

Still, it seemed his presence would be appreciated. There was loud applause as he reiterated his pledge that federal aid for reconstruction would be borne by local people.

“We're going to do it for you, but the way you want it, not the way someone else wants it,” he said. “I mean it.”

The city in the heart of the fire was once the seat of power for the ancient Hawaiian kingdom.

Native Hawaiians always fear that they will be left out and that it will be no different – that they will be again when this island is rebuilt and recovered.

“We will rebuild”

Mr. Biden and his wife – who broke up a week-long vacation in Lake Tahoe for the trip – spent most of their visit to Maui in the town of Lahaina, which was largely destroyed by the wildfires.

They also met with first responders, were briefed on the ongoing effort by state and local officials, and attended a blessing from island elders.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden participate in a blessing ceremony with Lahaina elders in Mokuʻula while visiting areas devastated by the Maui wildfires Monday, August 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Mr. Biden and his wife attended a blessing ceremony with Lahaina elders in Moku'ula. Image: AP

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden greet first responders while touring areas devastated by the Maui wildfires Monday, August 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.  In the background is the giant banyan tree burned in the fire.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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They also met with the island's first responders. Image: AP

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This comes after the White House announced Monday that it had appointed Bob Fenton, a regional head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as chief coordinator for the federal response to the Maui wildfires.

He will be responsible for the long-term recovery efforts.

In addition to being a popular tourist destination, Lahaina also had great cultural significance as it was the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and was home to a number of historic buildings.

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

Hundreds are still missing

On Sunday, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz said about 85% of the area affected by the wildfires had been searched.

Marine One flies as U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden (not pictured) arrive at Kahului Airport in Maui, Hawaii, United States, on August 21, 2023.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Marine One flies over Maui after devastating wildfires

Up to 850 people are believed to be missing, according to Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen. He said there was some relief that the number had dropped from the more than 2,000 names on the original list.

“We are both saddened and relieved by these numbers as we continue the recovery process,” said Mr. Bissen.

“The number of those identified will increase, the number of missing could decrease.”

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