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Biden returns from Maui after viewing Lahaina wildfire devastation

President Biden visited Hawaii Monday to view the widespread damage from the recent Maui wildfires, meet with survivors and officials -- and fend off criticism that his administration responded to the disaster too slowly.

The president and first lady Jill Biden arrived nearly two weeks after ferocious, wind-whipped blazes claimed at least 115 lives — and likely many more. They returned to the U.S. mainland later in the day, arriving in Reno, Nevada overnight en route to Lake Tahoe, where the Bidens are scheduled to vacation for several days.

Mr. Biden began his visit to Maui with an aerial tour, a common way for presidents to view the magnitude of disaster zones without hampering the response on the ground. From above, Mr. Biden had a clear view of the devastation wrought on the community of Lahaina. Hawaii's governor says many of the victims of Lahaina may be children

"To the people of Hawaii, we're with you for as long as it takes, I promise you," the president said in brief remarks from Lahaina Monday. "May God bless all those we've lost, may God find those who we haven't determined yet, and may God bless you all." 

On the ground in Lahaina, the president surveyed the damage, and heard firsthand from first responders and local leaders. He also met with community elders out of the earshot of reporters. In brief remarks, Mr. Biden said the federal government will be with the people of Maui for as long as they are needed, while being "respectful" of the sacred ground and wishes of the people of Maui.

"We're focused on what's next — that's rebuilding the long-term — rebuilding for long-term — and doing it together to help get us back on our feet," the president said. "To rebuild the way we want to rebuild, by making sure your voices are heard, but respecting your traditions, by understanding the deep history and meaning of this sacred ground, and establishing your community not to change its character, but to reestablish it." 

In Lahaina, the president announced he's appointing Bob Fenton, the Federal Emergency Management Agency regional administrator responsible for Hawaii, to head up the federal response to Maui.

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit Maui
Marine One flies as U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden (not pictured) arrive at Kahului Airport, in Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

"The biggest thing that the president needs to see is just the actual impact. It really feels different when you're on the ground and can see the total devastation of Lahaina," Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanna Criswell, who is traveling with the Bidens, said on CBS News' "Face the Nation" Sunday before the president's trip. 

Mr. Biden issued a major disaster declaration on Aug. 10, two days after the devastating fires, to expedite federal funding and assistance to the area.

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit Maui
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a community event at the Lahaina Civic Center, in the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 21, 2023. KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

But some critics, including disgruntled survivors in Hawaii and some Republicans hoping to face Mr. Biden in next year's presidential election, say federal aid has been inadequate and poorly organized.

Former President Donald Trump said it was "disgraceful" that his successor hadn't responded more quickly, though White House spokespersons have said Mr. Biden delayed his trip so he wouldn't distract officials and rescuers on the ground from recovery efforts.

Criswell, defending the government's response during appearances on Sunday talk shows, said Mr. Biden's presence Monday should underscore his commitment to ensuring Hawaii's recovery.

She said more than 1,000 federal responders were now on the ground in Hawaii, adding that none of them would have to be moved to the U.S. Southwest to help as Tropical Storm Hilary moved through.

Maui residents say the process of recovering lost loved ones — and identifying bodies — has been agonizingly slow.

Members of a search-and-rescue team walk along a street on Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Members of a search-and-rescue team walk along a street on Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Rick Bowmer / AP

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said more than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for and that the number probably includes many children. He warned it could be impossible to find all of the missing.

While search teams have covered 85% of the search zone, the remaining 15% could take weeks, Green said on "Face the Nation," adding that the fire's extreme heat meant it might be impossible to recover some remains "meaningfully."

Maui officials said late Monday that 100% of the single-story residential properties had been searched in the disaster area and teams will now transition to searching multi-story residential and commercial properties. By their very nature, they will likely take much longer to go through than the single-story residential structures, Green has said.

Criswell acknowledged that the process could be frustratingly slow, but said the federal government had sent experts from the FBI, the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to help with the slow and painstaking identification process.

"The structures that are burned have been burned completely," Christy Bormann, a member of the search and rescue team who is working with a cadaver dog, told CBS News. "So, we're talking about ash and we're talking about metal. That's basically what's left of those structures."

Green conceded he wished sirens would have alerted residents on Maui to evacuate as the blaze quickly spread through Lahaina, calling the response by the island's now-former emergency chief "utterly unsatisfactory to the world." 

"Of course, as a person, as a father, as a doctor, I wish all the sirens went off," Green told "Face the Nation."

"The challenge that you've heard — and it's not to excuse or explain anything — the challenge has been that historically, those sirens are used for tsunamis." 

"Do I wish those sirens went off? Of course, I do," Green said. "I think that the answer that the emergency administrator from Maui, who's resigned, was of course utterly unsatisfactory to the world. But it is the case that we've historically not used those kinds of warnings for fires."

Herman Andaya, the former Maui County emergency chief, cited health concerns as the reason for his resignation. He was off island attending a conference for Hawaii first responders when the fires broke out. However, several of his counterparts pulled out of the event so they could prepare their communities, sources told CBS News.

The aftermath of a wildfire is visible in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 17, 2023.
The aftermath of a wildfire is visible in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 17, 2023.  Jae C. Hong / AP

While viewed as almost politically mandatory, presidential visits to major disaster zones can carry risks.

When President George W. Bush traveled to Louisiana in 2005 to witness the historic devastation of Hurricane Katrina, critics seized on pictures of him looking out the window of Air Force One while flying over New Orleans to say his arms-length visit lacked empathy.

And when then-President Trump casually tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, critics called his gesture cavalier and insensitive.

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