LAHAINA, Hawaii, (AP) — President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden on Monday viewed the devastation wrought by the flames that ripped through the western part of the Hawaiian island, seeing for themselves the hollowed homes, structures and singed trees left behind by the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.
The Bidens lingered briefly on the tarmac after arriving at Kahului Airport to console Hawaii Governor Josh Green and his wife Jaime Green as well as members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation who came to the airport to greet them. The president and first lady embraced each of their greeters before boarding Marine One for an aerial tour of the devastation caused by the fires.
Biden later got a close up look of the wreckage in Lahaina, a historic town of 13,000 people that was virtually destroyed by the flames. His motorcade wound through the community of block upon block of hollowed out homes and structures, palm trees burnt to a crisp and endless debris.
The couple is meeting with first responders and is being briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response.
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. The Bidens interrupted a weeklong vacation in the Lake Tahoe area for the five-hour flight to Lahaina.
“It’s going to be an emotional day for everyone,” said Olivia Dalton, the White House deputy press secretary, told reporters traveling with Biden.
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.”
Dozens gathered on the streets of Lahaina to watch Biden’s motorcade wind its way through the streets. Some greeted the president enthusiastically, but others appeared to be waving their middle fingers at the motorcade.
LANGUAGE WARNING ⚠️— TONY™️ (@TONYxTWO) August 22, 2023
WOW!!! Listen to how Maui residents respond to Biden as his motorcade passes by 😳
“Here he comes after 13 days.”
Do you think Maui residents are happy to see Biden?? 👇🏼🚨 pic.twitter.com/1m4B2mrqGW
Biden has faced criticism from 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 against the criticism, saying the president kept in close touch with the governor and other emergency officials throughout the unfolding crisis.
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.
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.
Green said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “an army of search and rescue teams” with 41 dogs had blanketed the affected area.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a social media post Sunday that 27 victims had been identified and 11 families were notified of the losses. The FBI and the Maui County medical examiner and coroner’s office are working together to identify the recovered remains.
Bissen said 850 names were on a list of missing people, taking hope from the fact that the initial list contained more than 2,000 names.
“We are both saddened and relieved about these numbers as we continue the recovery process,” Bissen said. “The number of identified will rise, and the number of missing may decrease.”
More than 1,000 federal officials remain on the ground to respond to the wildfires in Hawaii, 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 will join 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.”
While vacationing in Lake Tahoe, Biden has been on the phone regularly with officials to get briefed on updates to the wildfire response, the White House said.