President Joe Biden traveled to fire-ravaged Maui on Monday to see the devastation left by an inferno a week earlier and to assess the government’s response, which some residents initially found lacking.
Monday’s trip will bring Biden to the scene of the deadliest American wildfire in more than 100 years. His initial response to the Maui wildfires drew criticism earlier this month, mainly from Republicans, who seized a long period of public silence from the White House as the death toll rose.
About 850 people are still unaccounted for, according to Maui County’s mayor, and the death toll is expected to rise as emergency responders and cadaver dogs search for victims in the charred wasteland. Biden plans to name a senior federal emergency official to oversee long-term recovery efforts during his visit.
The trip will give Biden a chance to personally show compassion to a community rocked by the disaster and to shake off some of the initial backlash over how he initially reacted when his photos of Delaware Beach caused a stir. The motive of the tragedy was focused on the screen. A curt “no comment” when asked about the death toll last Sunday sparked criticism that he was avoiding the tragedy. In all, the president went nearly five days without speaking publicly about the fire.
Behind the scenes, however, planning for the president’s visit was already underway. In phone conversations with Hawaii Governor Josh Green, Biden sought to ensure that the large footprint required for the president’s visit would not disrupt ongoing response and recovery efforts. He got an assurance from Greene that Monday’s trip would not interfere.
“I know how deeply a loss can affect a family and a community, and I know that nothing can replace the loss of life,” Biden said in a statement Sunday. “I will do everything I can to help Maui recover from this tragedy and rebuild,” Biden continued, “while we focus on respecting sacred lands, cultures and traditions.”
Shortly after the brush fire broke out in the historic town of Lahaina, Biden sought to marshal the federal government’s resources to ensure the community’s recovery, including signing an emergency declaration and staying in regular phone contact with state officials.
“If President Biden could teleport himself, he would be here in five seconds,” Green said at a news conference last week. “I’ve never seen such dedication in a president, to determine within six hours that this was an emergency and dedicate his time to doing full repairs, full restoration for our people in Hawaii.”
Biden plans to speak with state officials, emergency responders and survivors during his visit. Precise details of the president’s time on the ground have yet to be released in the days leading up to the trip, but he is expected to survey the ash and debris left by the fire.
The president will be joined by first lady Jill Biden on Monday. The couple interrupts a week’s vacation at Lake Tahoe to fly to Maui.
When Biden visits the island on Monday, he will appoint a senior FEMA official to coordinate the long-term federal response to the Maui wildfires, a White House official said ahead of the trip.
Bob Fenton, an experienced disaster response official, will serve as the lead federal response coordinator. He has been off the ground in Hawaii since the day the fire started earlier this month.
“As the recovery moves to the next phase, the President has directed Mr. Fenton, who has been at the forefront of the response since the early hours, to ensure that every member of this devastated community has access to everything the federal government can provide to help recover and rebuild as quickly as possible,” the official said.
Biden and the first lady will take an aerial tour of the debris left by the fire and visit the historic town of Lahaina to see the damage firsthand.
He will meet with survivors, first responders, community members and other officials and volunteers who are supporting recovery efforts.
During the visit, Biden plans to pledge the federal government’s support to rescue residents, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Dean Criswell said Sunday.
“He can really see the impact and feel this devastation in this community and how widespread it is throughout this community and talk to the families affected,” said Criswell, who is traveling. With the President on Monday’s trip.
“He’s going to assure the people of Maui that the federal government is there to support them, but we’re doing it in a way that allows them to rebuild the way they want to rebuild. I think that’s the biggest message he can get — we’re here for them, and we’re here for their vision of how they want to rebuild. We’re going to help them,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” .”
Some on the island have questioned the speed of the government’s response. In the days following the fire, some residents relied on local networks of boats and cars to help the area. Since then, even stronger aid has arrived on the island.
As of Saturday, more than 1,000 federal employees continue to assist with recovery efforts and more than $7 million in financial assistance has been provided to affected people. In that time, according to Criswell, search and rescue teams have gone through 60% of the affected area.
He noted that the number of people in shelters has dropped “significantly” as they move to hotels, adding that the next step will be efforts to clear debris and transition to long-term recovery.
As residents and businesses begin the rebuilding process, the U.S. Small Business Administration is evaluating how to tailor its disaster relief programs to the Hawaii recovery effort, SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman told CNN.
“We’re on the ground and SBA needs to see how the entire community can support victims and survivors of disasters,” Guzman told CNN’s Kayla Tausche.
Criswell said they are hearing from people that they want to make sure the federal government supports their vision for the future.
“They want to make sure that they can rebuild the way they want to rebuild and that when the federal government comes in, we’re supporting them with their vision of what Lahaina is going to look like in the future,” Criswell said.
This story has been updated with additional details.