In Maui, Biden vows to respect Hawaii traditions in wildfire rebuilding

August 22, 2023 - 9:15 AM
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U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden accompanied by Hawaii Governor Josh Green, Jaime Green, First Lady of Hawaii and FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell visit the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

 U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday vowed to stand by the people of Maui for “as long as it takes” as they rebuild after wildfires that killed more than 114 people on the Hawaiian island nearly two weeks ago.

“We’re focused on what’s next. That’s rebuilding for the long term …and doing it together,” said Biden, visibly moved after a tour of the blackened city of Lahaina. He added he would make sure “your voices are heard” and respect local traditions.

“The American people stand with you,” he told survivors of the Aug. 8 wildfires, standing alongside Governor Josh Green, Hawaii’s senators and the representative for Maui in Congress. “For as long as it takes, we’re going to be with you.”

Biden spoke near a historic banyan tree, which was damaged but survived the fires. “I believe it’s a powerful, very powerful symbol for what we can and will do to get through this crisis,” he said.

The president recounted his personal tale of tragedy, the vehicle accident death of his first wife and young daughter. He said he recognized what Maui people were feeling — “that hollow feeling you have in your chest like you’re being sucked into a black hole.”

Green thanked Biden for his help and praised the speed of the federal response.

Shakas, middle fingers

Biden, who interrupted a vacation in California to visit Maui, spoke after a helicopter tour with first lady Jill Biden, the governor and lawmakers from the Kahului airport, along the coast to the ruins of Lahaina.

In Lahaina, his motorcade passed blackened neighborhoods interspersed with untouched areas across the highway from the blue sea.

Many onlookers greeted the Bidens with the shaka, a hand gesture of thumb and little finger extended that signals aloha, a Hawaiian word that is often used as a greeting. A handful of other people held up raised middle fingers.

Biden, who is seeking reelection in 2024, has been criticized by some Republicans and others for his initial response to the Maui fires. Biden said on Aug. 10 he would expand federal aid to Hawaii and promised help to anyone who needed it. He went several days without speaking about the tragedy while vacationing at his Delaware beach house.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Monday she has provided Biden with routine updates and he is “satisfied” with the administration’s response. The president on Monday appointed FEMA Region 9 administrator Bob Fenton as the chief federal response coordinator of a long-term federal recovery effort.

The wind-whipped firestorm that raged through Lahaina in west Maui killed at least 114 people and the death toll is still mounting. The number of people officially believed missing is now 850, down from over 2,000, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said overnight on Facebook.

The White House says Biden has been leading a “whole of government” effort to help Hawaii recover, and White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton told reporters aboard Air Force One he approved a Hawaii disaster declaration within about an hour of receiving it. Biden himself said he had not wanted to travel to Maui until he was assured he would not interfere with emergency response efforts.

Biden has visited many disaster zones, including places struck by hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, since becoming president in January 2021. His visit on Monday came as Tropical Storm Hilary dumped rain on Southern California and the Southwest.

Maui presents a special challenge as the remains of some of the victims are still being recovered from burned-out buildings.

Criswell said roughly 85% of the disaster area has been searched, but the remainder includes large, multi-unit buildings that could take some time.

—Reporting by Steve Holland, Jarrett Renshaw and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Michael Perry, Jonathan Oatis, Heather Timmons, Cynthia Osterman and David Gregorio