Biden tells Lāhainā fire survivors: ‘We’re gonna build back better … but what you want’
August 22, 2023, 8:31 AM HST
During a Monday flight on Marine One, President Joe Biden received a bird’s-eye view of the unimaginably vast destruction of Lāhainā. This former royal capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom —and up until two weeks ago a vibrant, beloved seaside Maui town — now looks like a smoldering war zone.
But it is on the ground where the President can truly understand the devastation and suffering.
The presidential motorcade passed by nearly three miles of carnage — 2,200 structures destroyed, including homes, small businesses, historical buildings, art galleries, a library, a cultural center and an elementary school named after King Kamehameha III, the third king of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi.
The President, who was accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden, also passed the Lāhainā Gateway, a shopping center that randomly survived the fire and now is a distribution center of necessities for survivors.
Then it was a return of neighborhood after neighborhood burned to the ground. It’s where 115 people are confirmed dead and where the search for remains continues into a third week. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said the latest best estimate of the “unaccounted for” is still a whopping 850.
West Maui residents lined parts of the motorcade route along Honoapiʻilani Highway, from Kapalua Airport to the heart of Lāhainā. Some waved, saluted and gave him shakas. Others shouted expletives and gave him the middle finger.
Some pleaded for help. Signs said: “Lahaina Needs Relief Now” and “Defend Maui, Protect our ʻĀina.” A few first responders and residents made hearts with their hands.
Others expressed their anger. Signs said: “[Expletive] Biden” and “No comment.”
The latter referred to Biden’s brusque “no comment” he made when asked about the death toll last Sunday. The White House later said the 80-year-old Biden could not hear the question.
“People right now are scared and angry and everything in between,” said U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, who represents Maui. “And we have to recognize that. As I told some people, you’re entitled to your anger.”
But she added that the federal government and others on Maui are here to help them.
“Help could come from FEMA. Help could come from the Red Cross. Help could come from so many different places,” she said. “Be angry. But let us help you.”
Biden said multiple times that the federal government was supporting Lāhainā and Maui for the long haul.
At the last stop of his nearly 6-hour Maui trip, made in the middle of his week-long Lake Tahoe vacation, Biden — with lei around his neck — told a crowd of about 400 survivors and West Maui residents at the Lāhainā Civic Center: “The entire country is here for you.”
The president drew applause when he said: “We’re gonna build back better. Better than you had. But what YOU want. What YOU need.”
Biden channeled the memory of the late Hawaiʻi U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, whom Biden served with for many years in the Senate.
He looked up, saying: “Danny, I know you are watching.”
Biden has been known for his empathy, but was criticized for going five days without commenting on the Lāhainā fire that is the deadliest in the United States in more than a century.
On Monday, he said he understood the grief and loss they were going through, citing the sudden deaths of his first wife and young daughter in a traffic accident in 1972. After his speech, he said: “If anyone would like to speak with me, I’ll stay around. I just want you to know: We really care. Not a joke.”
He said he would go table-to-table to talk to people, and did so for about 45 minutes.
Before arriving at the civic center, the Bidens, alongside Hawaiʻi Gov. Josh Green and his wife Jaime Kanani Green, looked at the devastation on foot. They held hands as they walked along a once busy downtown road of Lāhainā, now eerily quiet and still smelling of smoke. He stopped to peer into one of many burned cars, some left behind when people fled for their lives.
To escape the fast-moving flames, some people — including children — jumped into the harbor, which Biden could see as he shook hands with first responders that included Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura and Maui Police Chief John Pelletier.
When Biden got to the final first responder in line, a handler of one of the 43 cadaver-sniffing dogs that are searching for remains, Biden noted the protective boots on the paws of the canine called Dexter, saying “hot ground.”
Biden addressed the media at an iconic area of Front Street, comparing Lāhainā to the famous but now charred 150-year-old banyan tree about 20 yards to his left.
“It burned. But it still stands,” he said. “Trees survive for a reason. I believe it’s a powerful, very powerful symbol, what we can and will do to get through this crisis. For as long as it takes, we’re going to be with you, the whole country [will] be with you.”
Biden was flanked by his wife, the Greens, Bissen, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and the Hawaiʻi Congressional delegation of senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and representatives Tokuda and Ed Case.
The president also introduced Bob Fenton, the FEMA Region 9 Administrator, who has been on the ground on Maui since shortly after the Aug. 8 fires and was selected to lead Lāhainā’s long-term recovery.
“I’m directing him to make sure the community has everything — everything the federal government can offer to heal and to rebuild as fast as possible,” Biden said.
Green, Bissen and the Hawaiʻi congressional delegation have praised Biden for his quick issuance of a federal emergency declaration and continued support of the recovery efforts.
Bissen said Biden called him on Sunday to see what help he could provide.
On Monday, Bissen thanked the Bidens for coming to Maui to “see firsthand the catastrophic destruction our people our facing. … We are incredibly grateful for the overwhelming outpouring of kindness, kōkua and kakoʻo that we are receiving on Maui, and I am humbled by how everyone in Hawaiʻi, and countless others around the world, have stood with us during this difficult time.”
Before leaving Front Street, Biden met with Hawaiian elders and took part in a blessing.
“Our hearts are broken and we will heal with the assistance of President Biden, and the federal government, and the love and compassion of resources throughout our state,” Green said. “We know we have the support to lift us up.”