LAHAINA, Hawaii (NewsNation) — President Joe Biden told Maui the nation “grieves with you” after he and first lady Jill Biden arrived Monday to survey the damage from the Hawaiian wildfires and meet with victims.
The trip is a critical moment for the president as he and his administration have been under intense scrutiny for their response to the wildfires ahead of his visit.
The two landed in Maui around 11 a.m. local time and boarded helicopters to get an aerial view of the devastation.
They went to Lahaina, where they got a firsthand look at the damage from the ground. There, Biden was briefed by state and local officials on the extent of the damage.
“The country grieves with you, stands with you and will do everything possible to help you recover, rebuild and respect culture and traditions when the rebuilding takes place,” Biden said in a news conference after touring the damage.
Later in the day, the president and first lady were expected to attend a community event and meet with first responders and survivors who escaped the fire.
The visit is an opportunity for Biden to act as consoler-in-chief, especially after initially giving a “no comment” response about the fires. His original reaction to the devastation rubbed many in Maui the wrong way.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green thanked the federal government for its response, noting that the disaster declaration was approved just six hours after receiving the request.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened before,” Green said at the news conference.
The Biden administration has also been criticized for FEMA’s response, as many victims claimed they couldn’t access resources and basic necessities last week.
However, FEMA officials claim the help is there. More than 1,000 FEMA personnel are on the ground in Maui, and $8.2 million is available in assistance. Also, FEMA has given out 50,000 meals so far as well as 75,000 liters of water.
Other federal entities like the Army Corps of Engineers are also on the ground in Maui, setting up generators to restore power to the island. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been helping identify the human remains of those who did not survive.
Biden also named Bob Fenton the chief federal response coordinator for the Maui wildfires. Biden was also expected to announce a new $3 million grant from the Department of Transportation that will be immediately available to Hawaii to help in the recovery.
It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, a historic neighborhood of 13,000 people that was virtually destroyed.
“We will rebuild the way the people of Maui want to rebuild,” Biden said, stressing the importance of preserving the community’s cultures and traditions.