WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden was heading to Hawaii on Monday to view the widespread damage from the recent Maui wildfires, meet with survivors and fend off political criticism that his government was too slow to respond to the disaster.
There were no immediate details on the precise itinerary awaiting Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, or the identities of those they would meet as they arrive nearly two weeks after ferocious, wind-whipped blazes claimed at least 114 lives – and likely many more.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said, however, that “he is 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.
“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,” Criswell said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
In a statement Sunday Biden said, “I know how profoundly loss can impact a family and a community and I know nothing can replace the loss of life. I will do everything in my power to help Maui recover and rebuild from this tragedy.”
Biden issued a major-disaster declaration on August 10, two days after the devastating fires, to expedite federal funding and assistance to the area.
But some critics, including disgruntled survivors in Hawaii and some Republicans hoping to face Biden in next year’s presidential election, say federal aid has been inadequate and poorly organized.
Former president Donald Trump said it was “disgraceful” that his successor had not responded more quickly, though White House spokesmen have said Biden delayed his trip so as not to distract officials and rescuers on the ground from recovery efforts.
Criswell, defending the government’s response during appearances on Sunday talk shows, said Biden’s presence Monday should underscore his commitment to ensuring Hawaii’s recovery.
She said more than 1,000 federal responders were now on the ground in Hawaii – and added that none of them would have to be moved to the US Southwest, which is bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Hilary.
Maui residents say the process of recovering lost loved ones – and identifying bodies – has been agonizingly slow.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green said Sunday that more than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for, and that the number probably includes many children.
While search teams have covered 85 percent of the search zone, the remaining 15 percent could take weeks, Green said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” The fire’s extreme heat meant it might be impossible to recover some remains “meaningfully.”
Criswell acknowledged that the process could be frustratingly slow, but said the federal government had sent experts from the FBI, the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to help with the slow and painstaking identification process.
Presidential visits to major disaster zones, while viewed as almost politically mandatory, can carry risks.
When President George W. Bush traveled to Louisiana in 2005 to witness the historic devastation of Hurricane Katrina, critics seized on pictures of him looking out the window of Air Force One while flying over New Orleans to say his arms-length visit lacked empathy.
And when then-president Donald Trump casually tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, critics called his gesture cavalier and insensitive.