Joe Biden flies to Maui to console survivors of devastating Lahaina wildfire

About 850 residents are still missing, with the confirmed death toll at 114

Alastair Jamieson
Monday 21 August 2023 19:17 BST
The search in Maui continues on Monday
The search in Maui continues on Monday (Reuters)

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden flew to the Hawaiian island of Maui on Monday to visit survivors of the devastating wildfires amid criticism of his initial response to the tragedy.

The couple are pausing their week-long holiday in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, for a day trip to Lahaina, a historic town of 13,000 people that was largely destroyed by the flames.

After a helicopter tour of the destruction, the president was expected to speak on the disaster, which has claimed at least 114 lives, with 850 people still missing.

Biden, who is seeking reelection in 2024, has been criticised for his initial response to the wildfires that started on 8 August. He said on 10 August that 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 relaxing at his Delaware beach house.

During his visit, he is also expected to appoint Bob Fenton, a regional leader at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), as 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 ahead of 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.”

The Bidens board Air Force One in Nevada on their way to Hawaii
The Bidens board Air Force One in Nevada on their way to Hawaii (AP)

While immediate aid such as water, food and blankets has been readily distributed, many residents are without mobile phones, identification and other documents needed to help them enrol in longer-term aid schemes.

More than 1,000 federal officials remain on the ground in Hawaii to respond to the wildfires, according to the White House. The administration has already doled out more than $8m (£6.3m) in aid to affected families.

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

Amid concerns by displaced Lahaina residents that developers will seek to buy them out, Fema administrator Deanne Criswell has said that Mr Biden will reassure survivors they will be in control of how they rebuild.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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