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Biden vows Maui will decide how to rebuild after wildfires, promises to help ‘as long as it takes'

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
  • President Joe Biden visited Maui, Hawaii, on Monday as authorities continue to search for more than 800 people still unaccounted for after catastrophic wildfires.
  • At least 114 people have died in the blazes, which destroyed the historic town of Lahaina.
  • Biden declared a major disaster on Aug. 10, just hours after Hawaii's governor requested it, unlocking billions of dollars in federal assistance for Maui.

President Joe Biden on Monday vowed that the people of Maui will determine how the devastated town of Lahaina is rebuilt after catastrophic wildfires burned the historic community to the ground, leaving more than 110 people dead and hundreds still missing.

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Biden surveyed the ruins in Lahaina firsthand on Monday accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, Federal Emergency Management Administrator Deanne Criswell, and Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono as well as Rep. Jill Tokuda.

The president observed the wreckage during a 20-minute aerial tour aboard Marine One, flying along Maui's coastline where he saw the destroyed buildings, burned trees and piles of ash that the wildfires have left behind. 

The president then landed at a nearby airstrip and surveyed the ruins on foot. Biden stood by the 150-year-old banyan tree that was burned in the fires, where he vowed that the federal government will help "as long as it takes" to rebuild Lahaina in accordance with the people of Maui's traditions and wishes. 

The president invoked the banyan tree as a symbol of Lahaina's resilience in the face of tragedy. 

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden accompanied by Hawaii Governor Josh Green andJaime Green, First Lady of Hawaii, visit the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. 
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden accompanied by Hawaii Governor Josh Green andJaime Green, First Lady of Hawaii, visit the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. 

"Today it's burned. But it's still standing. And trees survive for a reason. I believe it's a powerful, a very powerful symbol, of what we can and will do to get through this crisis," Biden said. 

"We're going to rebuild the way the people of Maui want it built," Biden said. Some residents are concerned that predatory buyers will seek to buy up land during the recovery process and change the face of Lahaina.

The blazes, which were over 80% contained Sunday, had already claimed at least 114 lives and caused billions of dollars in property damage. Authorities are still racing to locate and recover nearly 850 people who are still missing after catastrophic wildfires swept the island and burned for weeks.

The wildfires are the worst disaster in Hawaii state history and the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century.

Biden will appoint Bob Fenton, a FEMA regional administrator, to oversee the long-term federal effort to support Maui's recovery.

Marine One flies as U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden (not pictured) arrive at Kahului Airport, in Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. 
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
Marine One flies as U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden (not pictured) arrive at Kahului Airport, in Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. 

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.

Biden has been in regular contact with Gov. Green, a Democrat, and received regular updates from FEMA Administrator Criswell.

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

The FBI and the Maui Police Department 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 more than 2,700 households so far, including $3.4 million in initial rental assistance.

US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden visit an area devastated by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023. 
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden visit an area devastated by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023. 

The blazes 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 blazes.

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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