Biden visits wildfire-hit Hawaii after days of criticism

US News

Joe Biden has visited the wildfire-hit island of Maui – following days of criticism over his response to the crisis.

The president and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, arrived on the Hawaiian island on Monday – 13 days after the wildfires that claimed at least 114 lives and devastated the historic town of Lahaina.

After touring, the damage, he promised the federal government would help Maui “for as long as it takes” to recover from the devastation.

“The country grieves with you, stands with you and will do everything possible to help you recover,” he said in a speech, delivered next to a 150-year-old banyan tree in Old Lahaina which had been burned in the fires.

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“Today it’s burned, but it’s still standing,” Mr Biden said of the tree.

President Joe Biden speaks after touring areas devastated by the Maui wildfires, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Mr Biden gave a speech about Lahaina’s famous banyan tree, which was burnt by the fire

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green hugs President Joe Biden before he speaks after touring areas devastated by the Maui wildfires, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Hawaii Governor Josh Green hugs Joe Biden during his visit to Maui. Pic: AP

“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.”

Criticism of Biden’s response

It comes after Biden and his administration faced criticism over the response to the wildfires – the deadliest in the US in more than a century.

A protestor held out a banner urging “relief for Maui now” as the president’s motorcade weaved through the streets of Lahaina, while another signed urged Mr Biden to “listen to the people”.

A woman holds a sign as U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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A woman holds a sign as calling for more relief for Maui during Mr Biden’s visit to the island

People hold signs as U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

It comes after former Democratic Hawaii Representative, Tulsi Gabbard, compared the response to the wildfires in Hawaii – the 50th state of the US – to America’s support for Ukraine.

“Maybe if we change the name of Maui to Ukraine, maybe they will pay attention to us,” she said.

Biden also faced criticism from former president Donald Trump – the current frontrunner amongst Republicans to challenge him at next year’s presidential elections.

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Maui resident reflects on wildfires

Mr Trump said it was “disgraceful” that his successor had not responded more quickly to the crisis.

However, The White House has pushed back against the criticism, insisting that the president had kept in close touch with the governor and other emergency officials on Maui throughout the unfolding crisis.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green and his wife Jaime Green as they visit areas devastated by the Maui wildfires, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Pic: AP

More than $8.5m (£6.6m) worth of aid has also been distributed to some 8,000 affected families, according to Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Analysis: Presidential visits to disaster zones are always politically fraught

Remember that 2005 image of George W Bush glimpsing down from an Air Force One window at a destroyed New Orleans? It was a disastrous moment quickly etched in presidential history.

Presidential visits to disaster zones are always politically fraught.

Go too early and the charge will be that the entourage is getting in the way of the rescue and recovery. Go too late and the charge will be that the president doesn’t care enough. Or, in Bush’s case, don’t go at all.

Optics and tone are drawn on fine lines. Showcasing compassion can easily be interpreted as a photo op.

President Biden is good at empathy and it was on show for this visit to the devastated Hawaiian island of Maui.

As he often does with grieving communities, he reminded them that he knows grief. He spoke about losing his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash in 1972. He recalled wondering how life would go on.

There has been criticism of the president for not coming sooner, for not speaking about it for four days after, and for an apparently slow federal response.

The presidential election is still over a year away but make no mistake, brutal American electioneering is in full swing.

Still, it did look like his presence was appreciated. There was loud applause when he reiterated the pledge that federal help to rebuild will be led by locals.

“We’re going to get it done for you but get it done the way you want it done, not done somebody else’s way,” he said. “I mean it.”

The town at the heart of the fire was once the seat of power for the ancient Hawaiian kingdom.

Native Hawaiians worry, always, that they are left out and that this will be no different – that they will be again as this island rebuilds and recovers.

‘We are going to rebuild’

Mr Biden and his wife – who interrupted a weeklong holiday in Lake Tahoe for the trip – spent most of their visit to Maui in the town of Lahaina, which has been largely destroyed by the wildfires.

They also met with first responders, were briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response, and took part in a blessing by island elders.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden participate in a blessing ceremony with the Lahaina elders at Moku'ula..as they visit areas devastated by the Maui wildfires, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Mr Biden and his wife participated in a blessing ceremony with the Lahaina elders at Moku’ula. Pic: AP

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden greet first responders as they tour areas devastated by the Maui wildfires, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. In the background is the massive Banyan Tree burned in the fire. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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They also met with the island’s first responders. Pic:AP

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It comes after The White House announced on Monday that it had appointed Bob Fenton, a regional leader at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to be the chief federal response coordinator for the Maui wildfires.

He will be responsible for long-term recovery efforts.

As well as a place popular with tourists, Lahaina also had great cultural significance, as the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and as a home to a number of historical buildings.

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“We’re going to rebuild the way the people of Maui want to rebuild,” said Mr Biden, adding that his administration would be focused on respecting sacred lands, cultures and traditions.

Hundreds still missing

On Sunday, Hawaii senator Brian Schatz said around 85% of the area affected by the wildfires had been searched.

Marine One flies as U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden (not pictured) arrive at Kahului Airport, in Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Marine One flies over Maui following devastating wildfires

As many as 850 people are recorded as missing, according to Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen, who said it was of some relief that the figure had come down from the more than 2,000 names on the original list.

“We are both saddened and relieved about these numbers as we continue the recovery process,” Mr Bissen said.

“The number of identified will rise, and the number of missing may decrease.”

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