After arriving in Maui via Air Force One on Monday, President Joe Biden boarded a helicopter, taking in from the air the miles of charred remains left behind by the deadliest American fire in a century.
Biden was traveling to the historic coastal town of Lahaina, which experienced some of the worst damage. Authorities have confirmed at least 114 people died in Maui wildfires, and there are still 850 names on the list of missing persons.
Visiting a disaster zone is a presidential ritual that’s both expected and comes with considerable political risk. When President Trump stopped in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria he was slammed for being insensitive when he tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, President George W. Bush was photographed looking out the window of Air Force One while flying over New Orleans and criticized for not seeing the destruction up close.
Biden has gained a reputation for his empathetic responses to natural disasters, mass shootings and other moments of tragedy. But he has been criticized for not speaking sooner about the devastating fire and not traveling to see the scene earlier. The White House has said that President Biden put off his arrival in Hawaii so he wouldn’t disrupt the ongoing search and recovery operations.
“I wish I had a nickel for every time a president of both parties has been criticized for not rushing to a disaster scene fast enough,” says Larry Sabato, a prominent political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The other complaint is, ‘Can you believe this guy froze up our roads and monopolized our police and fire trucks when they have important work to do?’”
“So you can’t win,” Sabato says. “You’re either there too early or too late. You either don’t say enough or you say too much.”
After arriving on Lahaina’s Front Street on Monday, Biden and First Lady Jill Biden were briefed by federal and local officials on the recovery efforts. They also met with community members who survived the fires, which burned hot enough to melt cars stuck in traffic waiting to evacuate the town.
Biden stepped up to a podium not far from the charred-but-still-living limbs of the 150-year-old banyan tree that had shaded the central square of the town before the fires. "The tree survived for a reason," Biden said. "I believe it is a powerful—a very powerful symbol of what we can and will do to get through this crisis.
"Today it's burned," he added, "but it's still standing."
The initial federal response to the devastation in Maui drew criticism, as reports rolled in of victims getting more aid from private volunteers. There are now more than 1,000 federal personnel on the ground in Maui to help in the response effort, according to a White House description of the response.
On Monday, Biden named a veteran leader from within the Federal Emergency Management Administration, Robert Fenton, to lead the federal response to the deadly wildfires in Maui. Along with FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Navy, the Army, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Small Business Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are also helping with Hawaii's recovery.
Much of the criticism in recent days has been at the local government response to the wildfires. Hawaii Governor Josh Green has ordered an official review amid criticism that government officials didn’t do enough to save lives. Questions raised include why sirens weren't activated to warn residents about the flames.
Biden this month asked Congress for an additional $12 billion in disaster relief funds given the scope of disasters the country has faced so far this year. That figure is expected to grow in the aftermath of the Maui fires.
Sabato predicts Biden will still draw some criticism for his visit, as some will view it as "not enough."
“Because a president can’t get off Air Force One, snap his fingers and solve these terrible problems," Sabato says. "He can’t bring dead people back to life.”
Biden took time during his speech to address widespread concerns that wealthy real estate developers and speculators would dictate how towns like Lahaina rebuild. The federal government would prioritize what Maui residents want to happen in their recovery. "We're going to rebuild the way the people of Maui want to build, not the way other people want to build," Biden said.
As he spoke, Biden revisited the deaths of his first wife Neilia and daughter, Naomi, who were killed in a car crash in 1972. He recalled that as he headed to the hospital, he wasn't sure what happened to his two sons, Hunter and Beau, who were also in the crash. Both survived. Many people on Maui right now don't know what happened to their loved ones, or are grappling with news of the deaths of close friends and family. "I know the feeling as many of the people in this town, in this community, that hollow feeling in your chest like you're being sucked into a black hole, wondering will I ever get by this?" Biden said.
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