LAHAINA, Hawaii — President Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrived in this grief-stricken community Monday afternoon, touring damage from one of the deadliest wildfires in American history and attempting to channel one of the president’s signature traits: comforting those who have lost loved ones.
“On behalf of the United States of America, the American people stand with you,” he said, surrounded by burned buildings. “For as long as it takes, we’re going to be with you. The whole country will be with you.”
He motioned to his left, at a historic banyan tree that appeared to have survived, using it as a symbol of hope of rebuilding lives, businesses and the community.
“Fire cannot reach its roots,” he said. “That’s Maui. That’s America.”
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Maui wildfire updates
The Hawaii wildfires are the U.S.’s deadliest in more than 100 years. Here’s how the wildfires devastated Lahaina.
Death toll: 115
Maps: See where fires have burned.
Cause: Officials have not announced a cause, though power lines likely caused the first reported fire.
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Biden walked the ruins of a community where more than 100 have died and some 850 are still missing. It’s a place where homes have burned to the ground, where lives have suddenly been lost and where emotions are as raw as they are deeply felt. He viewed abandoned cars, burned and now marked with a large X, and passed homes now unrecognizable. He was taken to a sacred site where he participated in a blessing ceremony with Lahaina elders.
“The devastation is overwhelming,” he said at one point.
Biden arrived not only at a moment where he has mobilized the vast resources of the federal government, but also in the aftermath of criticism that he didn’t more frequently speak about the crisis in its early days, and made a brief “no comment” to reporters asking about his response to the deadly fires.
As Biden toured the damage, a number of people waved and took photos, with some holding supportive signs (“Maui Strong”) and others holding derogatory ones (“F--- Biden” and “Trump won”). As the president walked down Front Street, where charred storefronts are all that remain, he paused to shake hands with a line of first responders.
Asked if Hawaii will have all that it needs, Biden responded, “It will all the way through.”
He heard stories of a wife still searching for her husband, of a child who didn’t want to leave the ocean out of fear of fires burning him. He was briefed on 40 dogs who are searching for human remains — and discussed the prospect that some will never be identified.
At one point, Biden paused to pet a golden labrador named Dexter, pointing out the boots the dog had on all four legs to handle the heat.
He heard about the importance of significant federal help for a long recovery road ahead, from issues around housing to the many challenges with hazardous waste in the area.
“He’s always focused on the human experience and very impatient with bureaucracy,” Liz Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s homeland security adviser, told reporters between stops on Monday. “How fast can we move to help people in need — and, in particular, how can we help those in need who have the hardest time getting access to that help.”
During remarks, Biden spoke with familiarity of residents who waited to receive word about their loved ones, recalling the moment when he learned in 1972 about the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident. He referenced the “hollow feeling,” knowing that it was like “being sucked in a black hole” as they awaited news.
“I also want all of you to know the country grieves with you, stands with you,” he said, “and will do everything possible to help you recover, rebuild, and respect culture and traditions when the rebuilding takes place.”
After remarks to several hundred people at the Lahaina Civic Center — in the gym where college basketball’s Maui Invitational is hosted — Biden said he intended to remain to hear from residents.
“If anyone would like to speak with me, I’ll stay around,” he said, preparing to go table by table. “I just want you to know: We really care. Not a joke.”
Biden’s visit comes in the midst of a week-long vacation in Lake Tahoe with his family, and he was scheduled to return there late overnight Monday.
In one indication of the frequent natural disasters confronting the country, White House officials told reporters traveling from Lake Tahoe to Hawaii on Air Force One that the president had been in touch with the governors of Washington state, which is facing a number of forest fires, and California, which was hit this week with a tropical storm as well as an earthquake.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) praised Biden’s response to the Maui wildfires and said that starting in the first hours of the fire, he was personally contacted by multiple Cabinet officials.
“There are some times when a president promises support, but the Cabinet doesn’t really fully internalize the message,” Schatz said in an interview. “And that’s not what’s happening here. The Cabinet is motivated to help Hawaii and figure out every way they can.”
“Every federal resource that is possible to mobilize at this stage has been mobilized,” he added. “Most of my day is interacting with the federal government and trying to figure out how we can provide more support. And if I had any complaints, I would not be afraid to verbalize them.”
He said he has spoken directly with Biden — who expressed concern about not traveling to Hawaii until his presence wouldn’t be as much of a distraction to local law enforcement and recovery efforts — and is in daily contact with White House officials.
“[The president is] not the FEMA administrator so he’s not making [decisions] about when to open the road on West Maui or anything,” Schatz said. “His job is to tell the federal government to mobilize and mean it.”
He said that Biden’s lack of substantive public comment during a several-day stretch just after the scope of the fires became clear was not a factor in the work on the ground in Hawaii.
“That’s a Washington concern. I’ve never heard that concern expressed once on Maui,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you won’t find someone to complain. But my concern is whether the federal government’s power has been mobilized on behalf of Maui’s people. The rest is political intrigue on the East Coast, which is always uninteresting to me — but is especially uninteresting to me right now.”
Biden has often used natural disasters to showcase twin traits of his presidency — that of a competent government and of his empathy.
But the gap in his early public response was all the more striking because Biden early in his presidency had been determined to avoid some of the mistakes of his predecessors, who saw that a natural disaster can become politically treacherous.
George W. Bush received significant criticism for his administration’s failure to prepare for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and then for not providing enough resources in the storm’s aftermath.
Donald Trump at times became critical of the states that were seeking help — oftentimes in areas that did not support him in the 2016 election. In 2019, for example, he threatened to cut off federal aid to California as it dealt with wildfires, accusing Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) of mismanagement. Trump also held up an aid package for Puerto Rico for three years, calling its leaders corrupt before releasing the aid just before the 2020 election, in what Democrats called an effort to win votes in Florida.
Early in his presidency, Biden mobilized his administration to respond to weather-related incidents across the South. He held a number of calls with governors in seven states, many of them Republicans in areas that voted overwhelmingly against Biden. Some of the governors credited Biden with swiftly approving states of emergency, delivering federal resources and funding.
He called Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) on her cellphone hours after she toured the site of a tornado that killed a 14-year-old boy in her state. He visited a conservative area of Kentucky — one that voted for Trump by a nearly 4-to-1 margin — in the aftermath of deadly tornadoes, telling many who were deeply skeptical of the federal government that they could count on it in their time of need.
Biden also announced in 2021 that he was doubling the amount of money that the U.S. government spends to help communities prepare for extreme weather events.
“We can never be too prepared,” Biden said during an afternoon visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters as he announced the $1 billion in spending. “We’re going to spare no expense, no effort, to keep Americans safe and respond to crises when they arise. And they certainly will.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who toured the devastation with the president and other officials, said she hoped that the community could rebuild by listening to the needs of the people there. She pointed to the banyan tree as a symbol of that hope, and she said she had spoken to an arborist who was there to make sure the tree survived.
“He said ‘The tree will tell us what it needs. And our job is to listen,’ ” she said. “And that is our job, to listen to the people of Maui, to listen to the people of Lahaina as we rebuild.”
Wildfires in Hawaii
What’s happening: The official death toll from Maui’s wildfires has risen over 110, with the number expected to increase. Officials have also released a list of 388 people who are still unaccounted for after wildfires.
How did the fires start? Officials have not announced a cause, though power lines likely caused the first reported fire. The spread of flammable nonnative grasses combined with hurricane-stoked winds could have been factors alongside the indirect influence of climate change.
What areas have been impacted? Fires burned across multiple Hawaiian islands — these maps show where. The town of Lahaina on the island of Maui suffered widespread damage, and historical landmarks across the island were damaged. These photos show the extent of the blaze.
Can I help? Thousands of residents and visitors were forced to evacuate. Many organizations are accepting donations to assist those affected by the wildfires.
He arrived in Maui on Monday, 13 days after the deadliest US wildfire in over a century, telling survivors the nation "grieves with you". Mr Biden and First Lady Jill Biden toured the charred ruins of the town of Lahaina and met first responders. At least 114 people have died and 850 people are still missing.What did Biden do for Maui? ›
In the wake of the wildfires, President Biden made additional disaster funding available to the state of Hawaiʻi, unlocking the federal government's ability to cover all eligible expenses for debris removal and emergency protective measures in Maui County and assistance for emergency protective measures for Hawaiʻi ...What caused the fire in Maui? ›
It said the fire on the morning of Aug. 8 “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.” The Associated Press reported Saturday that bare electrical wire that could spark on contact and leaning poles on Maui were the possible cause.How long did it take for Biden to visit Maui Hawaii? ›
Biden arrived in Maui on Monday, 13 days after the wildfires ravaged the western part of the island. The fires – the deadliest the US has seen in more than a century – have killed at least 114 people.How much of Maui has burned? ›
Lahaina bore the brunt of the flames and the historic town was completely destroyed. With 2,170 acres burned, the Lahaina fire is about 90% contained, according to the release.Who owns most of Maui? ›
Who owns Maui? After the State of Hawaii, who owns over 154,000 acres on Maui, Alexander & Baldwin is the second-largest landowner at over 65,000 acres, and the U.S. Government is the third-largest landowner at over 33,000 acres.Why was Maui banished? ›
After stealing the heart of Te Fiti and losing his fish hook, Maui was banished to this desolate spit of land by the lava demon Te Kā as punishment for his crimes.Is it safe to visit Maui? ›
In an August 21, 2023, press conference, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said, “Right now I want to speak to the world when I say this: All of the other areas of Maui are safe and open.Where did Maui steal fire from? ›
Māui brings fire to the world
Mahuika lived in a cave in a burning mountain at the end of the earth. She gave Māui one of her burning fingernails to relight the fires, but Māui extinguished fingernail after fingernail until Mahuika became angry and sent fire to pursue Māui.
In early August 2023, a series of wildfires, referred to as the Hawaii Firestorm by the United States government, broke out in the U.S. state of Hawaii, predominantly on the island of Maui.
Below are updated statistics and actions from the Biden-Harris Administration's whole of government response, including a new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announcement of a $1.3 million funding allocation to help communities on Maui in the wake of the wildfires through HUD's new Rapid ...When did Maui last erupt? ›
Haleakalā, the only active volcano on the Island of Maui, erupted most recently between about 600 and 400 years ago. In the past 1,000 years, at least 10 eruptions produced lava flows and tephra cones from the rift zone that crosses the volcano from southwest to east and through Haleakalā Crater.Is Maui still open for travel? ›
A: Beyond West Maui, other areas on the island (including Kahului, Wailuku, Kīhei, Wailea, Mākena, Pā'ia, Makawao and Hāna), as well as the other Hawaiian Islands of Kaua'i, O'ahu, Lānaʻi, and Hawai'i Island remain open and welcome visitors.Can Maui erupt again? ›
Maui's massive volcano, Haleakala, will one day erupt again. Although Haleakala is considered dormant, volcanologists say that a future eruption at Haleakala is inevitable- it's not a matter of if, but when.Is Maui in danger of volcano? ›
Maui volcanoes are safe to visit as the chance of an eruption is very low per the US Geological Survey. Haleakala is considered an active volcano by the US Geological Survey (USGS).Has a tsunami ever hit Maui? ›
This collection of interviews represent first-person accounts of any tsunami occurring in Maui County. Although the most severe tsunami occurred on April 1, 1946, some residents recalled tsunamis occurring as far back as 1923.What is Biden doing for Hawaii? ›
Biden announces $95M in funding for Hawaii's power grid to 'meet the moment' after wildfires. By Maddie Gannon Washington, D.C. President Joe Biden is dedicating new federal funding to harden Hawaii's power grid, declaring the announcement was accelerated to “meet the moment” following the deadly wildfires on Maui.What was bidens response to Hawaii? ›
Last Thursday, within hours of the devastating fires, President Biden signed a Major Disaster Declaration for Hawaii, and as President Biden told Governor Josh Green, the Federal Government stands ready to provide additional assistance to ensure the state recovers.How much has Biden sent to Hawaii? ›
The federal government will provide $95 million to shore up Hawaii's electric grid in the wake of deadly wildfires, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday.Did Maui pull up the sky? ›
Lifting the Sky
Maui also sought out an old woman and drank from her gourd, giving him the great strength he would need to lift the sky. After a great struggle, Maui was able to push the sky beyond the mountains, lifting the edges over the wide expanse of the ocean, where it remains to this day.