By Steve Holland
LAHAINA, Hawaii (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday praised the "remarkable resiliency" of the people of Maui, after wildfires killed more than 114 people on the Hawaiian island two weeks ago, and said America would stand by them for as long as it takes.
“We’re focused on what’s next. That’s rebuilding for the long term …and doing it together,” said Biden, visibly moved after a tour of the blackened city of Lahaina. He added he would make sure “your voices are heard” and local traditions and wishes were respected.
"The American people stand with you," he told survivors of the Aug. 8 wildfires, standing alongside Governor Josh Green, Hawaii's senators and the representative for Maui in Congress. "For as long as it takes, we're going to be with you."
Biden, wearing an ornate lei, later told 400 people at a community event that featured traditional music and heartfelt speeches by local leaders: "Jill and I are here to grieve with you but also we want you to know the entire country is here for you.”
He emphasized repeatedly that the rebuilding would follow the wishes of the people of Lahaina and lauded the strong sense of community he had seen during his visit.
"It’s going to be a long road," he said, noting the symbolism of an historic banyan tree where he spoke earlier that was damaged but survived the fires.
"I know it's a metaphor, but that's you. That's who you are. There’s no quit in Hawaii, there’s no quit in America, there’s no quit in us."
In both remarks, the president shared his own grief when a vehicle accident killed his first wife and young daughter, and said he recognized what Maui people were feeling -- "that hollow feeling you have in your chest like you’re being sucked into a black hole."
Green thanked Biden for his help and praised what he called the unprecedented speed of the federal response.
SHAKAS, MIDDLE FINGERS
Biden, who interrupted a vacation in California to visit Maui, spoke after a helicopter tour with first lady Jill Biden, the governor and lawmakers from the Kahului airport, along the coast to the ruins of Lahaina.
In Lahaina, his motorcade passed blackened neighborhoods interspersed with untouched areas across the highway from the blue sea.
Many onlookers greeted the Bidens with the shaka, a hand gesture of thumb and little finger extended that signals aloha, a Hawaiian word that is often used as a greeting. A handful of other people held up raised middle fingers.
Biden, who is seeking re-election in 2024, has been criticized by some Republicans and others for his initial response to the Maui fires. Biden said on Aug. 10 he would expand federal aid to Hawaii and promised help to anyone who needed it. He went several days without speaking about the tragedy while vacationing at his Delaware beach house.
Democratic Senator Brian Schatz told reporters that Biden had instructed his entire cabinet to help Maui "restore some sense of normalcy over time," and understood the island would need federal resources for the long haul, not just a few weeks.
He said local resident were angry, and “the frustration is understandable” given lives lost and homes destroyed, but everyone was striking a bipartisan tone with regard to federal assistance from Washington.
Biden's homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters that the president had been told that all the remains of people killed in the blazes may not be identified.
She said Biden was always focused on “the human experience” during disasters like this, a fact evident at the community gathering, where Biden hugged local leaders and offered to speak with anyone interested. "I really care," he said.
Sherwood-Randall said the president was also concerned about the need to remove hazardous waste from the affected area, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency would come and assess what was needed after the remains recovery effort was completed. "Recovery on this scale takes years. It’s not months," she said.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Monday she has provided Biden with regular updates and he is "satisfied" with the response. The president on Monday appointed FEMA Region 9 administrator Bob Fenton as the chief federal response coordinator of a long-term federal recovery effort.
The wind-whipped firestorm that raged through Lahaina in west Maui killed at least 114 people and the death toll is still mounting. The number of people officially believed missing is now 850, down from over 2,000, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said overnight on Facebook.
The White House says Biden has been leading a "whole of government" effort to help Hawaii recover, and White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton told reporters aboard Air Force One he approved a Hawaii disaster declaration within about an hour of receiving it. Biden himself said he had not wanted to travel to Maui until he was assured he would not interfere with emergency response efforts.
Biden has visited many disaster zones, including places struck by hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, since becoming president in January 2021. His visit on Monday came as Tropical Storm Hilary dumped rain on Southern California and the Southwest.
Maui presents a special challenge as the remains of some of the victims are still being recovered from burned-out buildings.
Criswell said roughly 85% of the disaster area has been searched, but the remainder includes large, multi-unit buildings that could take some time.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Jarrett Renshaw and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Michael Perry, Jonathan Oatis, Heather Timmons, Cynthia Osterman, David Gregorio and Michael Perry)