Joe Biden says US government will help Maui ‘for as long as it takes’

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with community members impacted by the Maui wildfires at Lahaina Civic Center (Evan Vucci, AP)
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with community members impacted by the Maui wildfires at Lahaina Civic Center (Evan Vucci, AP)

US President Joe Biden has told survivors of Hawaii’s wildfires the nation “grieves with you” and promised the federal government will help “for as long as it takes” to recover.

Mr Biden arrived in Maui on Monday, 13 days after fire ravaged the western part of the island, killing at least 115 people.

Standing near a severely burned 150-year-old banyan tree, the president acknowledged the “overwhelming” devastation but said that Maui would persevere through the tragedy.

“Today it’s burned but it’s still standing,” Mr Biden said of the tree. “The tree survived for a reason. I believe it’s a very powerful symbol of what we can and will do to get through this crisis.”

APTOPIX Hawaii Fires
Crosses honouring victims killed in a wildfire are posted along the Lahaina Bypass (Jae C. Hong, AP)

Mr Biden and first lady Jill Biden got a close-up look at the devastation, seeing block after block of hollowed out homes and other structures, charred cars, singed trees and piles of debris as his motorcade wound through Lahaina.

They spent most of their time in the historic town of 13,000 people which was virtually destroyed by the flames.

The Bidens lingered briefly on the tarmac after arriving at Kahului Airport where they were greeted by Hawaii governor Josh Green, his wife Jaime Green and members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

The president and first lady embraced each of their greeters before they boarded the Marine One helicopter for an aerial tour of the damage.

The Bidens also met with first responders and members of the community and were briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response.

They also participated in a blessing of his visit by island elders. They had interrupted a weeklong vacation in the Lake Tahoe area to visit Lahaina.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Air Force One after visiting the site of the devastating Maui wildfires and the ongoing recovery efforts (Evan Vucci, AP)

Earlier on Monday, the White House announced Mr Biden has named Bob Fenton, a regional leader at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to be the chief federal response co-ordinator for the Maui wildfires, overseeing the long-term recovery.

“We’re going to rebuild the way the people of Maui want to rebuild,” said Mr Biden, adding that his administration would focus on respecting sacred lands, cultures and traditions.

Dozens gathered on the streets of Lahaina to watch Mr Biden’s motorcade wind its way through the community. Some greeted the president enthusiastically, but others appeared to be waving their middle fingers at the motorcade.

Other island residents held up signs urging Biden “to listen to the people of Lahaina” and to send more aid.

People watch as the motorcade carrying President Joe Biden to visit areas devastated by the Maui wildfires passes by in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Evan Vucci, AP)

During a community event at Lahaina’s civic centre, Mr Biden praised the “remarkable resilience” he said he saw during his few hours in the community.

The president also spoke, as he often does when addressing communities touched by tragedy, of understanding the personal weight of devastating loss and the slow and painful process of recovering.

Mr Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, died in a car accident in 1972. He lost an adult son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.

“When things look the most bleak, that’s when we need faith,” said Mr Biden, who spent 70 minutes after his remarks speaking with community members.