President Biden, first lady visit Maui to hear from survivors after devastating wildfires

Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

(MAUI, Hawaii) -- President Joe Biden visited Maui on Monday to observe the damage and recovery from devastating wildfires on the Hawaiian island that started earlier this month.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrived around 11:20 a.m. local time and greeted Gov. Josh Green with hugs after exiting Air Force One.

After taking an aerial tour in Marine One, the Bidens, Green and other elected officials walked through Front Street in Lahaina, which is still filled with charred debris.

At the second stop of the tour, Biden met with a long line of first responders, including one police officer who gave an item to the president. Biden placed the item into his pocket moments later.

He asked the group how many of the firefighters lost their homes and also met with a K-9 named Dexter who has helped with the search.

"How many firefighters lost their homes," the president asked the group, though none who were present appeared to respond that they were impacted.

The president, who reflected on his own emotions following the deaths of his first wife Neilia and daughter Naomi in a 1972 car crash, said he felt the pain of the hundreds of people who lost loved ones in the fires and those who are still awaiting news on missing friends and family.

"The difference between knowing somebody's gone and worrying whether they're available to come back are two different things," he said during a news conference during the tour.

Biden acknowledged the long road ahead for the island but reiterated that the federal government will continue to assist in recovery, sheltering and rebuilding efforts for a long time.

"We're with you for as long as it takes. I promise you," he said.

He emphasized that the federal government "will be respectful of the sacred grounds [and] the traditions that rebuild the way the people of Maui want to build, not the way others want to build."

A White House spokesperson said ahead of their arrival that it would be an "emotional day" as they meet with families, first responders and local officials.

"He'll meet with parents who've lost children and children who lost parents and first responders who saved other's homes while their own burned to the ground," White House principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said during a gaggle with reporters on Air Force One earlier in the day. "So, I think it's going to be an emotional day for everyone."

President Biden had been criticized by conservatives for what they contended was his relative silence on the disaster, which officials say has killed more than 110 people.

Last week, however, the president vowed the federal government's aid to Hawaii would be continuous.

"We will be there in Maui as long as it takes," Biden said while in Milwaukee for an unrelated event. "As long as it takes. And I mean that sincerely."

Dalton has also pushed back on the detractors, saying Biden has been "engaged and committed" over the last two weeks responding to the crisis.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Monday her agency had distributed over $8.5 million to residents of Maui, with $3.6 million of that being for direct rental assistance for 8,000 families that have registered for assistance.

"We continue to have more than 1,000 federal responders on the ground and this is from dozens of federal agencies, departments and agencies," she told reporters. "There are 16 people that remain in shelters and we have close to 2,000 people that we have already moved into hotel rooms."

Criswell said officials would get an update later on Monday on what Hawaii officials believe will be the estimated time to finish searching the remaining buildings in Maui. She joined the Bidens on their tour along with Green, Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Rep. Jill Tokuda.

Approximately 85% of the search area in Maui has been completed, according to officials.

FEMA has also made available more than 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots and 10,000 blankets and shelter supplies to the county government for distribution.

In an appearance on "This Week" on Sunday, Criswell detailed some of the federal response said the Bidens' visit would afford the president the opportunity to view the "devastation" for himself while offering residents some "hope."

"I think the biggest thing is, he's going to be able to see what I saw when I went to Maui last week and just really experience the complete and utter devastation that this town had experienced," Criswell said.

"But he's also going to be able to talk with people and hear their stories and provide a sense of hope and assurance that the federal government is going to be with them as he has directed, and we will continue to bring in resources to support the requests of the governor and their needs as they go through the recovery process."

As of Friday night, fires in Olinda and Kula were 85% contained, the Lahaina fire was 90% contained and the Pulehu/Kihei fire was 100% contained, according to Maui officials.

ABC News' Ben Gittleson and Justin Gomez contributed to this report.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023 at 8:33AM by Tal Axelrod and Ivan Pereira, ABC News Permalink