Biden says he and first lady will survey Maui damage as soon as they can. Follow live updates – The Denver Post

By The Associated Press

Follow live updates about wildfires that have devastated parts of Maui in Hawaii, killing dozens of people and destroying the historic town of Lahaina. The wildfires are the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century. The cause was under investigation. Even where the fires have retreated, authorities have warned that toxic byproducts may remain, including in drinking water, after the flames spewed poisonous fumes.

President Joe Biden says he and first lady Jill Biden will visit Hawaii “as soon as we can” to survey the Maui wildfire damage.

He said he doesn’t want his presence to interrupt recovery and cleanup efforts.

“My wife Jill and I are going to travel to Hawaii as soon as we can,” Biden said Tuesday in Milwaukee at a White House event held to highlight his economic agenda.

“I don’t want to get in the way,” the president said, adding that recovery work being carried about by emergency responders and search and rescue teams is “painstaking work” that “takes time.”

Biden said he has assured Gov. Josh Green that Hawaii “will have everything it needs from the federal government.”

He offered his thoughts and prayers to the people of Hawaii and pledged that “every asset they need will be there for them.”

Biden has surveyed the ruins of numerous natural disasters, including hurricanes and tornadoes. One place he has yet to visit, despite saying months ago that he intended to go, is East Palestine, Ohio, where toxic chemicals were released after a train derailment in February.

A visit soon is unlikely, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell suggested Monday.

— What spurred the fires? Right now, it’s unclear; authorities say the cause is under investigation

— What is the status of the fires? The county says the fire in centuries-old Lahaina has been 85% contained, while another blaze known as the Upcountry fire has been 65% contained

— How does the loss of life confirmed so far compare with other U.S. fires? For now, it is the country’s deadliest fire in more than 100 years, with officials saying nearly 100 people are dead, but the governor says scores of more bodies could be found

— How are search efforts going? The police chief said Monday that crews using cadaver dogs have scoured about 25% of the search area, with just three bodies identified so far

— Why did the fire cause so much destruction so quickly? The governor says the flames on Maui were fueled by dry grass and propelled by strong winds from a passing hurricane, and raced as fast as a mile (1.6 kilometers) every minute in one area

— Did emergency notification services work? Officials failed to activate sirens and instead relied on a series of sometimes confusing social media posts; meanwhile, residents faced power and cellular outages

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Tuesday that children are among the victims of the fires.

“When the bodies are smaller, we know it’s a child,” Green said during an appearance on Hawaii News Now. “There was a car, we know, for example, that had four people in it. It was obviously a family of four and two children in the back seat.”

Green said the task of recovering bodies is one of the toughest parts of the effort and one of the reasons officials are asking for patience from people wanting to enter the “ground zero” area of the fires.

Green said those in need of housing assistance should sign up with the Red Cross.

He said the state has a contract with the agency set to run for more than six months. He said there were more than 450 hotel rooms up and running and more than 1,000 Airbnbs online with the goal of getting everyone out of shelters by the end of the week.

With the threat of stormy weather this weekend, the governor said there is a open question about whether or not to preemptively power down for a short period of time to protect infrastructure weakened by the fires.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday he wants Congress to help Hawaii by approving a supplemental spending package that includes $13 billion to replenish federal disaster funds “as quickly as possible” once lawmakers return after Labor Day.

Schumer, D-N.Y., said his heart goes out to all those impacted by the devastating fires in Maui, adding that the Senate would “do everything we could to help Hawaii.”

Last week the Biden administration requested $13 billion in overall disaster funds as part of a $40 billion package that includes money for the war effort in Ukraine, which is running into opposition from Republicans in Congress.

Most likely, the request will be considered alongside broader legislation needed by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government funded and avoid a shutdown in routine services.

“We want to get a supplemental done as quickly as possible,” Schumer said on a conference call.

Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian humanitarian aid organization, airlifted 17 tons (15.4 metric tonnes) of emergency relief equipment, tools, and some volunteers Tuesday to help after the deadly wildfires on Maui.

Volunteers with the North Carolina-based ministry plan to help search for mementos and other items that might have survived the fires, the group said in a news release.

Its disaster-response specialists have been in Hawaii since Thursday, conducting assessments and coordinating with local authorities and church partners, the group said.

The group mobilized equipment and more than 380 volunteers in 2018 to help families following flooding on Kauai.

A small number of active-duty U.S. Marines have joined the effort to assist Maui’s recovery after last week’s devasting Lahaina wildfire.

Crews from Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron 153 flew active-duty service members from Oahu to Maui on Monday to establish a command-and-control element that will coordinate further U.S. military support.

The Hawaii National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are already on the ground, but a larger U.S. active duty response needs a formal request from Hawaii to begin operations there. The establishment of a cell could signal a wider Defense Department effort is about to begin.

On Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the military wants to help but did not want to rush in personnel without coordination, so as to not create further logistical problems for recovery efforts.

South Korea has pledged $2 million in humanitarian assistance for Hawaii to help respond to damage from the fires in Maui.

Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Tuesday that it “will purchase drinking water, food, blankets and other relief supplies through local Korean marts and deliver them to the Hawaii state government.” It also will donate cash “to local relief groups for the Hawaii state government to use in dealing with the aftermath of the fires.”

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the alliance between South Korea and the United States. The aid was announced days before a planned summit Friday at Camp David among President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeo and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The statement from South Korea also addressed the “deepening humanitarian crisis” triggered by damage from climate change-caused fires, saying it will “take part in the efforts to resolve global issues and will continue to contribute to disaster relief operations overseas in order to fulfill its vision to become a global pivotal state.”

The exact cause of the fires in Maui hasn’t been determined, but a number of factors, including high winds, low humidity and dry vegetation, likely contributed, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, adjutant general for Hawaii State Department of Defense, has said. Experts also said climate change is increasing the likelihood of more extreme weather.

As Hawaii officials claim there is a shortage of water available for firefighters, they’re pointing a finger at a recent court ruling that required more water be kept in East Maui streams amid drought and competing demands for use.

Environmentalists are pushing back less than a week after the state’s attorney general’s office filed a petition with the Hawaii Supreme Court on Wednesday blaming a senior environmental court judge for there not being enough water for firefighting.

The dispute connects the current blazes to an earlier court battle that pit Hawaiian activists and environmentalists against landowners after decades of diverting water from East Maui streams to sugar cane fields.

As firefighters battled the blazes, a flurry of court actions were lodged last week over access to water. The senior environmental court judge, Jeffrey Crabtree, issued an order temporarily suspending limits on water diversions he imposed in June for 48 hours. He also authorized water distribution requested by Maui fire officials, the county or the state until further notice if the judge could not be reached.

Still, attorneys for Hawaii asked the Supreme Court not to let Crabtree alter the amount of water that could be diverted or to put a hold on his restrictions until the state’s petition is resolved.

The judge “substituted his judgment for that of the agency,” the petition said, referring to the Board of Land and Natural Resources. “As a result, there was not enough permitted water to the battle the wildfires.”

Wayne Tanaka, executive director of Sierra Club, said Monday that the attorney general’s office exaggerated the effect of water diversion caps on firefighting.

“It’s a shameless exploitation of this horrible tragedy,” he said. “The central Maui reservoirs are of no use to west Maui, where most of the devastation is ongoing.”

He said he’s concerned the state is willing to go to these lengths to exploit the tragedy to help a private company monopolize water.

The attorney general’s office said in a statement Monday that former sugar plantation land owner Alexander & Baldwin uses water for wetting the ground for preventative fire suppression, and that Crabtree’s previous orders affect only the central Maui area water supply and “does not directly affect the water situation for Lahaina.”

Representatives for Alexander & Baldwin and the East Maui Irrigation Company did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Board of Land and Natural Resources said they do not comment on pending litigation.

Federal officials say more than 3,000 people in Maui have registered for various kinds of federal assistance — a number that’s expected to grow. FEMA Director of Operations for Response and Recovery Jeremy Greenberg told reporters on Monday that the agency was distributing aid, including $700 one-time payments for critical needs such a water and medical supplies as well as lodging paid for by FEMA.

The Biden administration and the Hawaiian government has launched a transitional shelter assistance program for residents in need of housing, letting them move to hotels or motels, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Monday at the White House briefing.

“We’re not taking anything off the table and we’re going to be very creative in how we use our authorities to help build communities and help people find a place to stay for the longer term,” Criswell said.

The Biden administration is seeking $12 billion in additional money for the government’s disaster relief fund as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress. Criswell said that “we do have adequate funding to do the response that we’re doing right now,” but that additional money will be needed to continue all of the other ongoing recovery projects through September.

The National Weather Service is monitoring Tropical Storm Greg, which is passing well to the south of Hawaii with minimal effects expected. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Liaison Da’Vel Johnson said they’re mindful of drought and dry conditions on the island but there aren’t any fire-related hazards in effect.


Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists Jennifer Kelleher in Honolulu; Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Darlene Superville in Washington; Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee; Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Ty O’Neil and Claire Rush in Lahaina, Maui; and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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