SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California (AP) — President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden are traveling to Maui on Monday to comfort survivors of the devastating wildfires that ripped through the western part of the Hawaiian island earlier this month, as his administration responds to the devastation whose full scope is still unknown.
The Bidens are taking a detour from their weeklong vacation in the Lake Tahoe area for the day trip to Lahaina, a historic town of 13,000 people that was virtually destroyed by the flames. While there, the first couple will meet with first responders and be briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response.
They will also view the damaged town, both from helicopters and on the ground, and the Democratic president will deliver remarks paying tribute to the victims of the wildfires, which have killed more than 100 people since they began on Aug. 8.
The president will also tap Bob Fenton, a regional leader at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as chief federal response coordinator for the Maui wildfires, ensuring that someone from his administration will be responsible for long-term recovery efforts. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, where just about every building was obliterated.
“I know how profoundly loss can impact a family and a community and I know nothing can replace the loss of life,” Biden said in a statement ahead of the trip. “I will do everything in my power to help Maui recover and rebuild from this tragedy. And throughout our efforts, we are focused on respecting sacred lands, cultures, and traditions.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said that as of Sunday about 85% of the affected area had been searched and nearly 2,000 people remained without power and 10,000 were without telecom connectivity. Water in parts of west Maui is not safe to drink.
While immediate aid such as water, food and blankets has been readily distributed to residents, Schatz said that cellphones, identification and other documents that people would need to help them enroll in longer-term aid programs were burned in the fires, adding more challenges to the application process.
More than 1,000 federal officials remain on the ground in Hawaii to respond to the wildfires, according to the White House. The administration has doled out more than $8 million in aid to affected families.
Schatz, who will be with Biden as the president travels to his home state on Monday, stressed that officials were “still responding to the disaster” and “We are not yet in a recovery phase.”
“As bad as this looks, it’s actually worse,” he said in a phone interview on Sunday. “What you can’t see is the damage to utility infrastructure. What you can’t see is the thousands of kids who are trying to figure out how to go to school this fall. What you can’t see is the first responders who went into the flames without regard for their own safety and had their own homes burned down.”
While vacationing in Lake Tahoe, Biden has been on the phone regularly with officials to get briefed on updates to the wildfire response, the White House said.