LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday told survivors of Hawaii’s wildfires that the nation “grieves with you” and promised that the federal government will help “for as long as it takes” Maui to recover from damage caused by the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.
Biden arrived in Maui 13 days after fire ravaged the western part of the island, killing at least 115 people. Standing near a severely burned 150-year-old banyan tree, the president acknowledged the “overwhelming” devastation but said that Maui would persevere through the tragedy.
“Today it’s burned but it’s still standing,” Biden said of the tree. “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.”
Biden and first lady Jill Biden got a close-up look at the devastation, seeing block after block of hollowed out homes and other structures, charred cars, singed trees and piles of debris as his motorcade wound through Lahaina. They spent most of their time in the historic town of 13,000 people that was virtually destroyed by the flames.
The Bidens lingered briefly on the tarmac after arriving at Kahului Airport to console Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, his wife Jaime Green and members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation who greeted them. The president and first lady embraced each of their greeters before they boarded the Marine One helicopter for an aerial tour of the damage.
The Bidens also met with first responders and members of the community, and were briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response. They also participated in a blessing of his visit by island elders. They had interrupted a weeklong vacation in the Lake Tahoe area to visit Lahaina.
Earlier Monday, the White House announced that Biden has named Bob Fenton, a regional leader at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to be the chief federal response coordinator for the Maui wildfires, overseeing the long-term recovery. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, where just about every building was obliterated.
“We’re going to rebuild the way the people of Maui want to rebuild,” said Biden, adding that his administration would focus on respecting sacred lands, cultures and traditions.
Dozens gathered on the streets of Lahaina to watch Biden’s motorcade wind its way through the community. Some greeted the president enthusiastically, but others appeared to be waving their middle fingers at the motorcade. Other island residents held up signs urging Biden “to listen to the people of Lahaina” and to send more aid.
During a community event at Lahaina’s civic center, Biden praised the “remarkable resilience” he said he saw during his few hours in the community.
The president also spoke, as he often does when addressing communities touched by tragedy, of understanding the personal weight of devastating loss and the slow and painful process of recovering. Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, died in a car accident in 1972. He lost an adult son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.
“When things look the most bleak, that’s when we need faith,” said Biden, who spent 70 minutes after his remarks speaking with community members.
Biden has faced criticism from some Republicans, including 2024 Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, for saying too little during the first days after the catastrophe. The White House, however, has pushed back, saying the president acted quickly and kept in close touch with the governor and other emergency officials as the crisis unfolded.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said that as of Sunday about 85% of the affected area had been searched and nearly 2,000 people remained without power and 10,000 were without phone and internet. Water in parts of west Maui was unsafe to drink.
While immediate aid such as water, food and blankets has been readily distributed to residents, Schatz said cellphones, ID and other documents that people would need to help them enroll in longer-term aid programs were burned in the fires, adding more challenges to the application process.
During his tour, Biden walked down a street from which many Lahaina residents made their harrowing escape from the flames.
An army of search and rescue teams with dozens of dogs have blanketed the area to help with recovery efforts. White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said some 500 to 800 people remain unaccounted for. Mayor Richard Bissen earlier Monday put the number of unaccounted for at 850. Sherwood-Randall said the FBI has sent specialists to Maui to help with identification efforts.
Sherwood-Randall added that Biden, who has toured numerous communities ravaged by extreme weather disasters during his presidency, was focused during the visit “on the human experience,” and is “very impatient with bureaucracy.”
“How fast can we move to help people in need, and in particular, how can we help those in need who have the hardest time getting access to that help?” Sherwood-Randall said of Biden’s focus.
More than 1,000 federal officials remain on the ground to respond to the wildfires, according to the White House. The administration has distributed more than $8.5 million in aid to some 8,000 affected families, including $3.6 million in rental assistance, said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.
Schatz, who accompanied Biden on Monday, stressed that officials were “still responding to the disaster” and “we are not yet in a recovery phase.”
“As bad as this looks, it’s actually worse,” he said in a phone interview on Sunday. “What you can’t see is the damage to utility infrastructure. What you can’t see is the thousands of kids who are trying to figure out how to go to school this fall. What you can’t see is the first responders who went into the flames without regard for their own safety and had their own homes burned down.”
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington and Claire Rush in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.