Biden heads to Maui, where 850 people are still missing after catastrophic Hawaii wildfires

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden board a plane as they depart for Maui from Reno, Nevada, U.S., August 21, 2023. 

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

President Joe Biden will visit Maui, Hawaii, on Monday, as authorities race to locate and recover nearly 850 people who are still missing after catastrophic wildfires swept the island and burned for weeks.

The blaze, which was over 80% contained Sunday, had already claimed more than 110 lives and caused billions of dollars in property damage. The wildfires are the worst disaster in Hawaii state history and the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century.

Upon arrival, the president and the first lady will survey the devastation in Lahaina aboard a helicopter. Later, they will tour wildfire damage in the town firsthand, and receive a briefing from officials.

While in Hawaii, Biden will also announce the appointment of FEMA regional administrator Bob Fenton to oversee the long-term federal effort to support Maui’s recovery.

Fenton oversees the FEMA region that includes Hawaii and recently led the federal response to the monkey pox outbreak in 2022. Fenton has been on the ground in Hawaii since the wildfires started, according to the White House.

“I will do everything in my power to help Maui recover and rebuild from this tragedy,” Biden said in a statement Sunday ahead of the trip. “Throughout our efforts, we are focused on respecting sacred lands, cultures, and traditions.”

Search and recovery team members check charred buildings and cars in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 18, 2023. 

Yuki Iwamura | Afp | Getty Images

Biden has been in regular contact with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, and received regular updates from Federal Emergency Management Administrator Deanne Criswell.

“I know how profoundly loss can impact a family and a community and I know nothing can replace the loss of life,” the president said. Biden’s first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972. His eldest son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.

Search dogs have combed about 85% of the disaster site in Lahaina so far, according to county officials.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Maui Police have located more than 1,200 survivors, said Maui mayor Richard Bissen in a video posted Sunday.

Biden declared a major disaster in Hawaii on Aug. 10, hours after Hawaii’s governor requested the declaration, unlocking federal assistance for Maui.

More than 1,000 federal personnel are currently on the ground in Maui, including more than 450 search and rescue team members, according to FEMA. The White House has approved $8.2 million in assistance to over 2,700 households so far, including $3.4 million in initial rental assistance.

In an aerial view, burned cars and homes are seen in a neighborhood that was destroyed by a wildfire on August 18, 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

The blaze started suddenly and spread swiftly around Aug. 8, fanned by winds from Hurricane Dora and fueled by drought conditions on Maui. The cause of the fires is under investigation, but several lawsuits have already been filed against the power company Hawaiian Electric, alleging that downed power lines sparked the blaze.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez has also launched a review of the disaster response by state and local officials. The Maui Emergency Management Agency did not activate sirens during the wildfires, leaving residents with little warning that the fires were spreading rapidly.

Maui’s emergency management administrator, Herman Andaya, resigned abruptly last week after defending his decision not to activate the sirens.

Green, the governor, stressed that the review of the local emergency response is not a criminal investigation.

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