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Biden to Visit Hawaii in Stepped-Up Response to Disastrous Fires

2023-08-21 17:18
President Joe Biden aims to show the federal government is there for Maui residents when he visits the
Biden to Visit Hawaii in Stepped-Up Response to Disastrous Fires

President Joe Biden aims to show the federal government is there for Maui residents when he visits the fire-stricken island on Monday amid criticism of his response to the historic disaster.

The president and First Lady Jill Biden plan to take a helicopter tour of areas destroyed by the deadliest US wildfires in more than a century and walk the streets of Lahaina, the seaside town that bore the brunt of the devastation, according to a White House official.

They will also receive a briefing on recovery efforts, meet with federal, state and local officials and offer words of comfort to first responders and survivors during a community meeting.

Ahead of that meeting, Biden will deliver remarks paying respect to those who died and reflect on the damage to Maui, the official said. He will also name Bob Fenton, the top Federal Emergency Management Agency official in the western US, the chief federal response coordinator to oversee the long-term recovery, according to the official.

“Jill and I are eager to meet with the brave first responders in Lahaina tomorrow, to spend time with families and community members, and witness firsthand what will be required for the community to recover. We will be here as long as it takes for Maui,” Biden said Sunday in a statement.

The visit marks a pivotal moment for Biden in the face of one of the worst domestic crises of his presidency. He’ll be traveling to Hawaii just as California deals with potentially catastrophic rain from a rare Pacific storm — the latest evidence of increasing climate risk to the US and beyond.

Earlier: Biden to Visit Wildfire-Stricken Maui Monday Amid Criticism

Five days passed between Biden’s in-person public remarks about the Hawaii fires that started Aug. 8, even as the death toll mounted and people affected by the blaze questioned the government response. He is interrupting a family summer vacation on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe to travel to Hawaii.

Administration officials have said Biden was involved behind closed doors, receiving daily briefings from his advisers and Hawaii officials and authorizing all necessary federal disaster relief resources. He has also been briefed on emergency preparations related to the West Coast weather, which triggered California’s first-ever tropical storm warning.

But the president’s quiet posture undercut his image as a compassionate leader and left him open to attacks from political opponents.

The criticism reached a crescendo on Aug. 13 after Biden told reporters “no comment” when asked during a vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, whether he had any message about the deaths in Lahaina. At least 114 people have died in the fires and more than 1,000 more are believed to be missing.

Read More: Maui Fire Lays Bare Utility Missteps Mirrored Across the Country

“A recovery of this magnitude, it’s going to take time,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Saturday. “But thanks to the president’s leadership and our strong partnership with the state and the local government, I think things are moving in the right direction.”

Biden’s fumble was surprising for a president who has suffered personal loss and used those experiences to lead during tragedies and connect with victims. He’ll have a chance to do that when he sits down privately with people who lost loved ones in the Hawaii fires.

“The president’s presence will convey to the state of Hawaii and the rest of the country that he stands with us,” Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “Of course it has to be followed with real federal resources, but a lot of people just want to know that the rest of the world cares and that Maui is going to get the help it needs.”

Yet Biden could face tough questions not only about his personal reaction but the government’s response. Some Maui residents have said recovery efforts have appeared disorganized and reported difficulty in accessing food, shelter and assistance funds.

Read More: Fires, Heat Block Biden From Taking Victory Lap for Climate Law

Schatz said the island still has “real challenges,” including more than 10,000 people lacking reliable telecommunications, about 1,000 to 2,000 homes without power and uncertainty about the school year.

“We are going to need help over a long period of time. Because as bad as this looks from the pictures and the video, it’s actually worse on the ground,” the senator said.

Federal officials have said they have brought all necessary funding and personnel to bear.

More than 1,000 federal personnel were on the ground in Maui as of Saturday to assist with search and rescue efforts and help residents, according to the White House. More than $8 million in federal disaster assistance has been approved and FEMA has made tens of thousands of meals, liters of water, cots and blankets available to county officials to distribute.

Biden has been closely following and leading the response, the White House said. He has frequently spoken with Criswell and Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, as well as Hawaii Governor Josh Green and lawmakers, for updates. He offered a public statement on Aug. 9 and quickly issued a federal disaster declaration to make resources available.

The president will also face a challenge when he returns to Washington to secure more funding for the response to the Maui fires and other natural disasters. While the White House is asking Congress for $12 billion in disaster relief funds for the next fiscal year as part of an emergency spending request, the package’s chances of passage are threatened by House Republican opposition to its Ukraine aid provisions.

Even more money could be needed for disaster recovery depending on the costs of the response to the Maui fires and other potential extreme weather events, Criswell said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

--With assistance from Laura Litvan.