The White House on Monday defended President Biden’s handling of the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, rejecting criticism that he was silent about the devastation in Hawaii while he was on vacation at his Delaware beach home over the weekend.
Biden has not publicly addressed the devastation since last Thursday as the death toll has steadily climbed. The wildfires spread quickly, leveling the historic Maui town of Lahaina and leaving scores missing. Survivors have complained about inadequate warnings and emergency response. While vacationing on Sunday, Biden declined to answer a reporter’s question about the death count, which had then reached 93.
The president last week signed an emergency declaration and ordered federal assets on the island, and White House aides noted that he has been receiving updates on the response efforts from federal and state officials. Still, Republicans have attacked Biden for not commenting since expressing support for victims on Thursday.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday during the daily briefing that Biden will again address the tragedy when he travels this week to Milwaukee for the anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act’s signing and to Lake Tahoe for vacation.
“You’ll hear from the president,” Jean-Pierre added. “This is something that the president clearly is deeply concerned about.”
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Deanne Powell, joined Jean-Pierre virtually from Hawaii for the briefing and updated the media on recovery efforts. The White House has not announced any visit by the president to the devastated island.
“I don’t have anything to announce at this time,” Jean-Pierre said. “Look, we’re gonna continue to have conversations with [Criswell], certainly the governor in Hawaii, on what the opportunities might be, what that may look like for a trip, but right now we just don’t have anything to share.”
Officials, however, sought to reaffirm the president’s commitment to the victims. Jean-Pierre said that Biden has stayed in touch with the governor, the FEMA administrator and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and that he has mobilized a comprehensive federal response.
As of Monday, there are more than 300 FEMA workers on the ground, and the emergency agency has provided 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots and 10,000 blankets to the county government for distribution, the White House said.
FEMA is offering temporary shelter in hotels and motels, federal workers are registering residents for a $700-per-household payment for survivors, and the government is working with community-led groups to reach all residents no matter which language or other barriers, Biden tweeted Monday.
Biden and Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) spoke Friday after the governor had surveyed the destruction, and Green provided an update and assessment of the state’s needs. He praised Biden on MSNBC after he signed the emergency declaration hours after Hawaii asked.
The president expressed support for the victims Thursday, during an event in Salt Lake City to mark the anniversary of the signing of the PACT Act, the law that provides aid to veterans exposed to “burn pits” and other toxic substances during their service.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers — every asset we have will be available to them,” Biden said last week. “They’ve seen their home, their business destroyed, and some have lost loved ones. And it’s not over yet.”
But the president has come under attack for seeming to appear tone deaf while vacationing over the weekend. Biden left Washington on Friday morning for his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., attending Mass on Saturday, and biking and visiting the beach Sunday. Otherwise, he kept out of the public eye over the weekend.
During a bike ride on Sunday morning, the president was asked if he would visit Maui. He answered, “We’re looking at it.”
But later that evening, after the official numbers exceeded the 85 killed by the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, Biden answered “no comment” when asked about the death count. Biden is now facing scrutiny from numerous Republicans, including those who shared the video and argued that the president should address the loss of life.
Former president Donald Trump’s campaign issued a video message on Monday evening, expressing sympathies for those affected while adding to the criticism of Biden’s response.
“To say no comment is oftentimes fine, but to be smiling when you say it, especially against such a tragedy as this, is absolutely horrible and unacceptable,” Trump said in the message. He also went after Hawaii’s governor for “wanting to do nothing but blame it on global warming, and other things that just happen to pop into his head.”
The region’s remote location and the extensive scope of the destruction have made recovery a huge logistical challenge, officials say. Many Native Hawaiians and others have mobilized to deliver generators, food, clothing and other supplies to the survivors as firefighters continue to put out the blazes.
“There’s no government agency helping us — this is it,” Native Hawaiian Jareth Lumlung told The Washington Post about his impromptu donation efforts. “This is our home, our community.”
Authorities have also requested patience during the search efforts as workers have encountered unsteady structures and difficult conditions. Recovery teams had covered only 3 percent of the disaster zone as of Sunday in a landscape the FEMA administrator likened to “a scene from an apocalyptic movie.”
Residents have also complained of insufficient warning from local authorities as the fire raged. Meanwhile, Hawaiian Electric also has faced scrutiny — and a class-action lawsuit — for not shutting off power during high winds.