21 August 2023

Biden arrives in Maui to comfort wildfire survivors and emergency workers

21 August 2023

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden have arrived in Maui to comfort survivors of the devastating wildfires that ripped through the western part of the Hawaiian island.

The Bidens interrupted a week-long holiday 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.

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 August 8.

“It’s going to be an emotional day for everyone,” said Olivia Dalton, the White House deputy press secretary, told reporters travelling with Mr Biden.

The White House announced on Monday that Mr 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,” Mr 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.”

Lahaina is a community of “significant historical and cultural importance”, Ms Dalton said.

Sen Brian Schatz 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, Mr Schatz said phones, ID and other documents that people would need to help them enrol in longer-term aid programmes were burned in the fires, adding more challenges to the application process.

Hawaii Gov Josh Green said Sunday on CBS’s 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 on 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.

Mr 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,” Mr 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 dollars in aid to some 8,000 affected families, including 3.6 million dollars in rental assistance, said Fema administrator Deanne Criswell.

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