President Joe Biden vowed the country will stand by Maui “for as long as it takes” to rebuild and recover from the devastating wildfire that killed at least 114 people earlier this month Hundreds are still missing.
The President traveled to Hawaii on Monday after flames swept across the historic town of Lahaina, leaving ruins and ash in its wake. The blaze is already the country’s deadliest wildfire in more than a century, but that number is expected to rise as rescue workers continue to comb through the debris.
“As long as it lasts, we’ll be with you. The whole country will be with you,” Biden said at a news conference from Lahaina after a sightseeing flight around the city.
He spoke about the loss of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident in 1972 and recounted how a sudden tragedy had impacted his own life.
“I know the feeling that a lot of people in this city have, that hollow feeling in your chest, like you’re being sucked into a black hole,” Biden said. “It’s one thing to know, but it’s quite another to wait and wonder if your family member will be okay.”
More than a thousand people have been living in emergency shelters since the fire, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency said many are staying in hotels or rental apartments as part of longer-term plans. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said the situation on the ground is “actually worse” than it looks, adding that the recovery process hasn’t even started.
“What you don’t see is the damage to the utility infrastructure,” he said told The Associated Press on Sunday. “What you don’t see are the thousands of children trying to figure out how to go to school this fall. What you don’t see are the first responders who, with no regard for their own safety, went into the flames and allowed their own homes to burn down.”
About 13,000 people lived in Lahaina. Officials said the massive devastation will likely take years to recover and will cost billions of dollars to rebuild. Residents have already done so expressed concern about this processfor fear they might be squeezed out by wealthy investors.
But Biden vowed Monday that the government will ensure the city is rebuilt “the way the people of Maui want to build.”
“We’re going to do it for you, but the way you want it and not the way someone else wants it done,” the president said at a community event later Monday. “I mean it.”