During whirlwind visit, Biden surveys ‘overwhelming’ devastation on Maui and comforts grieving residents

In an update on Sunrise Tuesday morning, Gov. Josh Green said that 87% of the disaster zone has been searched through.
Published: Aug. 21, 2023 at 2:51 AM HST|Updated: Aug. 22, 2023 at 8:16 AM HST
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LAHAINA (HawaiiNewsNow) - President Biden walked through the charred remains of Lahaina on Monday, accompanied by the first lady, federal officials and Hawaii dignitaries, and pledged to stand with Hawaii in the months and years ahead as the community slowly heals — and rebuilds.

“The devastation is overwhelming,” Biden said, standing on Front Street after shaking hands with first responders and crews tackling the difficult work of searching for remains. “The country grieves with you, stands with you. We’re focused on what’s next, rebuilding in the long-term.”

After touring devastated Lahaina, President Biden then made his way to the Lahaina Civic Center, where he delivered heartfelt remarks to wildfire survivors and those who lost loved ones.

He also greeted many personally, spending nearly two hours there to offer hugs and condolences.

“Jill and I are here to grieve with you, but also we want you to know the entire country is here for you,” Biden told attendees, adding that the federal government will support Maui’s recovery “as long as it takes.” He continued, “We’re not going to stop until it’s done. We’re going to build back better.”

And in a nod to the growing concerns among residents about what rebuilding will look like, the president told attendees that Lahaina should rise again in the “way that the people of Maui want to build, not the way others want to build. But you know, it’s gonna be hard.”

Gov. Josh Green also spoke in Lahaina, thanking the president for his visit and for the federal disaster assistance that Biden quickly approved for the community. “Our hearts are broken,” Green told Biden. “The people of Lahaina will need time to heal, to recover, to grieve.”

The Bidens made their way to Lahaina following an aerial tour of the community onboard Marine One. A pool reporter recounted seeing “ruined buildings and piles of gray ash” from the air.

Biden, wearing jeans and a ball cap, touched down in Kahului onboard Air Force One about 11:10 a.m. Monday, and shared embraces with Green and members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

Following their whirlwind day on Maui, the Bidens departed about 4:45 p.m.

The presidential visit comes nearly two weeks after a wall of flames — moving as fast as a mile a minute — tore through historic Lahaina town, leaving at least 115 people dead.

Hundreds remain missing and much of Lahaina is in ruins.

“What happened here compares to no other disaster. There’s just no comparison,” John Mills, of FEMA, told Hawaii News Now. “This type of disaster will be incredibly challenging to recover from.”

On Sunday, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in an post on Instagram that a new FBI-vetted list put the number of unaccounted for following the wildfire at 850, down from about 2,000 names.


“We are both saddened and relieved about these numbers as we continue the recovery process,” Bissen said. “The number of identified will rise, and the number of missing may decrease.”

Meanwhile, Bissen said 27 victims had been identified and 11 families were notified of the losses.

Loved ones of the missing are being asked to provide DNA samples to the FBI in order to assist with identification. More details on how to provide a DNA sample is available here.

Biden has pledged an “all-of-government” response to the Lahaina blaze, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years. Already, there are roughly 1,000 federal personnel on Maui to assist in the recovery, and roughly 450 of those are searching Lahaina for the remains of those killed.

While in the devastated community on Monday, Biden officially tapped Bob Fenton, a regional leader at FEMA, to serve as the chief federal response coordinator to oversee the long-term recovery on Maui. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina, where just about every building was obliterated.

In a statement posted Sunday, Green said that roughly 85% of Lahaina has been searched so far by recovery crews. The remaining 15%, however, is in multi-story buildings where finding remains might be even more difficult given the higher mounds of rubble.

In an interview with national news program “Face The Nation” over the weekend, Green also addressed the response to the fast spreading flames on Maui, including the decision to not sound the sirens. “I wish all the sirens went off,” Green said, adding there will be lessons learned.

Coverage of the Maui wildfires:

Biden pledges a Maui-driven recovery: During his remarks to devastated Lahaina residents, President Biden made sure to deliver this message: Your community will be rebuilt on your terms.

Tax relief announced for wildfire victims: Victims of wildfires in parts of Hawaii that began on Aug. 8 will have more time to file their tax returns and pay taxes, the IRS announced Monday.

Loved ones of Lahaina’s missing hold on to their hope: As the days wear on, families missing loved ones are holding on to hope they’ll be found alive. That hope, though, is being tested.

Thousands still have contaminated tap water: Nearly two weeks after the Maui wildfires, contaminated tap water remains a serious concern for thousands of residents.

He added that “historically” the sirens were used for tsunami, which is what now-resigned Maui County Emergency Management Administrator Herman Andaya pointed also told reporters.

But a new HNN Investigates report also found emergency officials told their counterparts in Maui before flames raced through Lahaina that they could activate sirens during wildfire evacuations.

As the grueling recovery efforts in Lahaina continue, so too does the work of aiding thousands of evacuees. Over the last week, most have been moved from evacuation shelters to hotel rooms.

The White House said to date, about $8 million in assistant has been distributed to more than 2,700 households, including $3.4 million in rental assistance.