Biden tells Hawaii fire survivors: ‘We’re with you’

Search and recovery team members check charred buildings and cars in the aftermath of the

President Joe Biden on Monday told survivors of a horrific blaze in Hawaii the government would not abandon them as he toured the scene of the worst wildfire the United States has seen in over a century.

The 80-year-old donned the mantle of comforter-in-chief as he saw for himself the devastation wreaked on Lahaina by a fire that killed at least 114 people as it levelled the historic town.

“I know the feeling that many people in this town, this community (have); that hollow feeling you have in your chest like you’re being sucked into a black hole,” he said as he stood by the blackened skeleton of a historic banyan tree.

“We’re with you for as long as it takes, I promise you, by making sure your voices are heard.

“We’re gonna rebuild the way that the people of Maui want to build. The fire cannot reach the roots. That’s Maui. That’s America.”

Biden is fighting criticism his government was too slow to respond to the disaster that devastated a town of more than 12,000 people, with locals angry at what some see as a plodding official response.

Former president Donald Trump said it was “disgraceful” that his successor had not visited Hawaii sooner, though the White House has said Biden delayed his trip so as not to distract officials and rescuers working on the ground.

Residents have also lashed out at Maui officials who they say should have sounded an alarm system as the fire erupted.

As a result, “a warm welcome may not be assured for Biden in some circles on Maui,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper said ahead of the visit.

Biden and First Lady Jill Biden walked through the ravaged remains of Lahaina with Hawaii’s Governor Josh Green and his wife, nearly two weeks after ferocious, wind-whipped blazes sent residents jumping into the ocean to escape the flames.

The couple also took to the air in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, to see the crushing extent of the devastation that left the former royal capital in ashes.

Many houses were completely destroyed by the wall of fire that tore through the town; the shells of other buildings still stand, shorn of the vibrancy that made Lahaina a major tourist draw.

The burned-out hulks of cars litter roads where they were abandoned by drivers who realised — some too late — that the way out was snarled with traffic.

The death toll is expected to rise, with around an eighth of the disaster area still to search.

Officials have warned that some bodies are so badly burned that identification could be tricky, or even impossible.

The pace of victim recovery and the small number of people who have been postively identified is another source of anguish for those still hunting for loved ones.

Possibly hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.

“We’re gonna get it done for you,” Biden told a crowd as he prepared to leave for Nevada, where he is vacationing.

“We will get it done the way you want it done. Not get it done somebody else’s way.”

Agonizingly slow

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, defending the government’s response, said Biden’s one-day visit underscored his commitment to ensuring Hawaii’s recovery, with more than 1,000 federal responders now in Hawaii.

Criswell acknowledged that the search and rescue process could be 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 painstaking identification process.

Presidential visits to major disaster zones, while viewed as almost politically mandatory, can carry risks.

When then-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 Trump casually tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, critics called his gesture cavalier and insensitive.


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