Joe Biden vows to visit Hawaii soon amid criticism


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“There’s a lack of response, it felt like”

By Bernd Debusmann Jr in Washington & Max Matza in Maui

BBC News

US President Joe Biden says he will travel to Hawaii “as soon as he can” amid criticism of his response to the island’s deadly wildfires.

Speaking in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Mr Biden said he wanted to ensure that the people in the state had “everything they need”.

Nearly 100 people have so far been confirmed dead in the fires.

Hawaii residents have complained about the pace of the federal government’s response to the disaster.

While at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, over the weekend, Mr Biden was asked by a reporter about the rising death toll in Hawaii, and responded: “No comment.”

The president said on Tuesday he hadn’t yet visited because of concerns that doing so would divert resources and attention from the humanitarian response. Jill Biden will accompany him to Hawaii, he said.

“I don’t want to get in the way. I’ve been to too many disaster areas,” Mr Biden said. “I want to be sure we don’t disrupt ongoing recovery efforts.”

Over 500 federal emergency personnel have so far been dispatched to help with relief efforts, including 150 search and rescue specialists.

Additional personnel are being sent to Maui to help those already on the ground, Mr Biden added.

He said that “all available federal assets” in the region will be used for recovery efforts, including the US military and Coast Guard.

“It’s painstaking work. It takes time and it’s nerve wracking,” the president said.

The US Small Business Administration has also begun offering low-interest disaster loans to help local residents rebuild.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) has approved one-time payments of $700 per household to help with immediate needs in the wake of the disaster.

“Every asset they need will be there for them,” said Mr Biden. “And we’ll be there in Maui as long as it takes.”

Officials in Hawaii have said they expect the death toll to rise in the coming days as more bodies are recovered from the worst hit parts of Maui.

On Monday, Governor Josh Green said that only 25% of the affected area had been properly searched for human remains.

Approximately 80% of Lahaina – a town of about 12,000 residents – was destroyed in the blaze.

On the ground in Maui, many residents told the BBC they have been frustrated at the scale and the speed of the recovery efforts.

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Watch: ”Thank God that he gave us tears’ Maui resident

One resident, Les Munn, said he has so far received $500 (£395) from Fema – less than the price of a night in most hotel rooms on the island.

For now, he is still sleeping on a cot in a shelter.

Another local, Felicia Johnson, said that “everybody wants the glory but nobody wants to put their feet on the ground”.

On a street above the fire line in Lahaina, one woman said she feared she would starve to death in the days after the fire.

But now people are dropping bags of ice, water, clothing, batteries and small solar chargers at her neighbour’s home, one of several grassroots relief supplies hubs co-ordinated by locals in the area.

Ahead of a second trip into the worst-hit area, Amory Mowrey spent $1,700 to load his and his friend’s SUVs with toilet paper, cases of water, packs of batteries and sacks of rice.

“We’re just trying to get supplies as fast as possible into the affected areas so people get what they need,” he said. “There’s a lack of response, it felt like, from large organisations.”

Others expressed frustration that locally sourced supplies were being turned away by government officials, or that road closures had prevented people from entering Lahaina to help.

“The government’s getting in the way of people helping,” said Liz Germansky, who lost her home in the fire.

“I don’t think the government could have done less,” she told the BBC while sitting in a traffic jam on the island.

“The way things are unfolding right now is typical of what we all experienced on Tuesday… it’s no wonder that this got so out of hand.”

Additional reporting by Regan Morris in Maui

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