KAHULUI, Hawaii — President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrived in Maui on Monday to comfort survivors of the devastating wildfires that ripped through the western part of the Hawaiian island, as his administration responds to the devastation whose full scope is still unknown.
A Pause in Vacation
The Bidens interrupted a weeklong vacation in the Lake Tahoe area for the five-hour flight to Lahaina, a historic town of 13,000 people that was virtually destroyed by the flames. The couple will meet with first responders and be briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response.
Assessing the Damage
They will also see the destruction from the air and on the ground, and the Democratic president will deliver remarks paying tribute to the victims of the wildfires, which have killed more than 100 people since they erupted on Aug. 8.
“It’s going to be an emotional day for everyone,” said Olivia Dalton, the White House deputy press secretary, told reporters traveling with Biden.
A Federal Response
The White House announced Monday 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, ensuring that someone from his administration will be responsible for long-term recovery efforts. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, where just about every building was obliterated.
“I know how profoundly loss can impact a family and a community and I know nothing can replace the loss of life,” Biden said in a statement before the trip. “I will do everything in my power to help Maui recover and rebuild from this tragedy. And throughout our efforts, we are focused on respecting sacred lands, cultures, and traditions.”
A Community of Significance
Lahaina is a community of “significant historical and cultural importance,” Dalton said.
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 telecom connectivity. Water in parts of west Maui is not safe to drink.
The devastating wildfires in Hawaii have left residents facing significant challenges as they try to rebuild their lives. Immediate aid in the form of water, food, and blankets has been distributed to those affected. However, important items like cellphones, identification documents, and other paperwork necessary for enrolling in longer-term aid programs have been lost in the fires, further complicating the recovery process.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green recently appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and mentioned that extensive search and rescue efforts have been deployed in the affected area. He highlighted the involvement of an army of search and rescue teams, consisting of 41 dogs, who have been diligently combing through the debris to locate survivors.
Richard Bissen, the Mayor of Maui County, took to social media to provide an update on the situation. He shared that 27 victims have been identified, and 11 families have been informed about their losses. The FBI, along with the Maui County medical examiner and coroner's office, are working together to identify the remains recovered from the fire-ravaged areas.
Bissen also mentioned that there is a list of 850 missing individuals. However, he expressed some hope as this number is less than half of the initial list, which contained over 2,000 names. He emphasized that while these figures will continue to fluctuate as the recovery process progresses, they provide both relief and sadness.
The White House has mobilized over 1,000 federal officials to assist with the wildfire response efforts in Hawaii. According to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, more than $8.5 million in aid has been distributed to approximately 8,000 affected families. The aid includes $3.6 million specifically allocated for rental assistance. The federal response remains ongoing and aims to provide support to those in need.
Senator Brian Schatz will be joining President Biden on his visit to Hawaii, underscoring the ongoing efforts to respond to the disaster. Schatz highlighted that the recovery phase has not yet commenced, as officials are still actively dealing with the aftermath of the wildfires. He emphasized that the visible damage is just a fraction of the devastation, as there is also significant damage to utility infrastructure. Additionally, there are thousands of students grappling with the challenges of returning to school amidst the destruction. Schatz expressed admiration for the first responders who bravely risked their lives to protect others, even though some faced their own homes being consumed by the flames.
While President Biden is currently vacationing in Lake Tahoe, he remains fully engaged with the situation, regularly communicating with officials to stay updated on the wildfire response efforts.
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