AIR FORCE ONE, Aug 21 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s duty as consoler in chief will be put to the test on Monday as he visits Maui, nearly two weeks after wildfires swept through the Hawaiian island and killed more than 110 people.
Biden paused his vacation in Lake Tahoe on Monday to fly from Reno, Nevada, to Maui, where he and first lady Jill Biden will take a helicopter tour of the burned-out areas.
They will then visit the devastated city of Lahaina to see the wildfire damage firsthand, talk with survivors, receive a briefing from state and local officials and deliver remarks.
“It’s going to be an emotional day for everyone,” White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton told reporters on Air Force One.
Dalton said Biden will make clear on Monday that he has been concerned about the victims since day one and “intends for his administration to be there for as long as it takes.”
Biden, who is seeking reelection in 2024, has been criticized by some Republicans and others for his initial response to the Maui fires. Biden said on Aug. 10 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 vacationing at his Delaware beach house.
Deanna Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said she has provided Biden with routine updates and he is “satisfied” with the administration’s response.
The wind-whipped firestorm that raged through Lahaina in west Maui on Aug. 8 killed at least 114 people and the death toll that is still mounting. The number of people officially believed missing is now 850, down from over 2,000, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said overnight on Facebook.
The White House says Biden has been leading a “whole of government” effort to help Hawaii recover, and Dalton told reporters he approved a Hawaii disaster declaration within about an hour of receiving it. Biden himself said he did not want to travel to Maui until he was assured he would not interfere with emergency response efforts.
The White House on Monday announced the appointment of FEMA Region 9 administrator Bob Fenton as the chief federal response coordinator to oversee a long-term federal recovery effort.
Biden has traveled to many disaster zones, including places struck by hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, since becoming president in January 2021. His visit on Monday came as Tropical Storm Hilary dumped rain on Southern California and the Southwest.
Maui presents a special challenge as the remains of some of the victims are still being recovered from burned-out buildings.
Criswell said roughly 85% of the disaster area has been searched, but the remainder includes large, multi-unit buildings that could take some time. She said the administration is working with the state to find new schools for children and combat real estate predators.
Reporting by Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Michael Perry, Jonathan Oatis, Heather Timmons and Cynthia Osterman
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