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'The devastation is overwhelming': Biden tours wildfire damage on Maui

President Joe Biden, who was joined by first lady Jill Biden, also sought to assure residents of Maui that they would be involved in the recovery process.
Last Updated 22 August 2023, 04:28 IST

President Joe Biden toured the scorched remains of Lahaina, a coastal town on the Hawaiian island of Maui, on Monday in his first visit since devastating wildfires killed more than 100 people and left behind scenes of twisted metal and hollowed-out homes.

Biden, who broke away from his summer vacation on Lake Tahoe in Nevada, met with survivors of the fires and with emergency workers and state and local officials. The president hugged Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, and walked arm in arm with him to Marine One for a 20-minute aerial tour of the wreckage. Sporting a green and yellow lei, he told community members, “the entire country is here for you.”

“The devastation is overwhelming,” Biden said as he stood near a 150-year-old banyan tree, a cherished landmark in Lahaina. He said the tree symbolized the resilience of the Maui community.

The president, who was joined by first lady Jill Biden, also sought to assure residents of Maui that they would be involved in the recovery process. “We will be respectful of the sacred grounds and the traditions, and rebuild the way the people of Maui want to build, not the way others want to build,” he said.

With several hundred people in the area still unaccounted for, Biden said federal officials were also committed to search-and-rescue operations. Officials have searched about 87% of the area affected by the fire for victims, said Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s homeland security adviser. As dogs combed through the last of the damaged homes and cars, officials told Biden that they might not be able to identify all of the dead.

The president has come under criticism from Republicans for not saying enough publicly in their view about the fires that turned Lahaina into an inferno on Aug. 8. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser warned that “a warm welcome may not be assured for Biden in some circles on Maui” because of frustrations over applying for aid and cultural sensitivities involving Native Hawaiians.

Local congressional leaders have said billions of dollars are needed to help Maui recover.

White House officials have rejected the criticism, saying that the president has kept in close touch with the governor and Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Criswell told reporters Monday that the disaster relief agency had distributed more than $8.5 million to Maui, including $3.6 million for direct rental assistance. More than 1,000 federal officials were on the ground, and close to 2,000 victims had been moved into hotel rooms on Maui.

The portion of the island that has not been searched includes many more buildings with multiple stories, making search and rescue operations difficult. Criswell said officials were estimating that the search could take another two weeks.

FEMA is working on standing up temporary schools in Maui. “Four or five schools have been destroyed as a result of this fire,” Criswell said.

Biden added Monday that FEMA had distributed 55,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 beds and 10,000 blankets.

The agency has encouraged survivors to register with the government to receive assistance, including an immediate payment of $700 to cover food and water. By the end of last week, more than 5,000 people had registered.

But lawmakers, including Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, warned that long-term federal assistance would be needed for Maui’s recovery.

“The people of Maui want to know that everybody has fully internalized what a long road this is going to be — we get it,” he said. “But we want the country to know this isn’t a matter of sending an online contribution and throwing up a hashtag. We’re going to need an enormous amount of resources for the foreseeable future.”

Biden made the trip after arriving in Lake Tahoe on Friday evening. He is staying on the Nevada side of the lake, at a house owned by Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate investor who lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Biden in 2020. White House officials said the president was renting the house for “fair market value” but did not disclose details.

The Maui wildfires were not the only natural disaster that the White House was monitoring. Tropical Storm Hilary made landfall on the Baja California Peninsula of Mexico and began dumping rain on Southern California on Sunday, just hours after a 5.1-magnitude earthquake struck northwest of Los Angeles. Biden spoke Sunday with Gov. Gavin Newsom of California about the tropical storm, aides said.

As he has when visiting other sites of natural disasters, Biden related the pain of grieving families to his own. He described the death of his first wife and infant daughter in an automobile accident and the “hollow feeling you have in your chest like you’re being sucked into a black hole.”

“I also want all of you to know the country grieves with you, stands with you and will do everything possible to help you recover,” Biden said.

Despite Biden’s pledges, some volunteers and residents in Hawaii dismissed the president’s trip as a public relations ploy.

As Biden made his way through Lahaina, his motorcade passed residents with signs, many pleading for more relief. One said, “Relief for Maui Now”; another said, “Lahaina needs relief now.”

“They failed us on every level,” said Eddy Garcia, who barely looked up as a trio of military helicopters whirled past the roadside farm where he was handing out papayas, oranges and burritos to people left homeless by the fire. “Their red tape, their bureaucracy.”

Others rushed to get a peek at the president as he visited, including a few dozen who gathered near the small airport in West Maui for his arrival.

“He really needs to look at this rubble and see this was no ordinary fire,” said Pearl Patterson. “So many lives were lost. This is sacred ground.”

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(Published 22 August 2023, 04:28 IST)

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