President Joe Biden has announced his intention to travel to the area of the Maui fires in Hawaii as soon as possible to assess the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the deadliest wildfires in over a century to hit the United States.
The wildfires, which have claimed the lives of at least 106 individuals, have left behind a trail of destruction and devastation that has shocked the nation. Biden’s visit is aimed at evaluating the situation firsthand and ensuring that the state receives the necessary resources for recovery.
With 111 deceased victims identified as of Tuesday afternoon, the extent of the tragedy is still unfolding. Maui County officials have reported that two names have been publicly released, and the remaining three will be disclosed once families are notified. The enormity of the disaster has prompted swift action from both local and federal authorities.
During a visit to Ingeteam, a clean energy manufacturing company specializing in onshore wind turbine generators, Biden conveyed his concerns about the dire situation. “A whole city destroyed. Generations of native Hawaiian history turned into ruin,” Biden told reporters in Milwaukee, underscoring the gravity of the situation.
Biden’s remarks mark his first direct comments on the wildfires since the death toll surpassed a grim milestone over the weekend. These fires have already exceeded the fatalities caused by a California fire in 2018, reflecting the unprecedented scale of the disaster. Hawaii’s Governor Josh Green warned on Monday that the death toll, currently standing at 99, could potentially double or even triple in the coming days.
As the tragedy unfolded, some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, criticized Biden for not addressing the growing crisis sooner. Biden has also been slammed for offering one-off $700 payments to the wildfire victims, a sum many argued was too low.
President Biden emphasized that he and First Lady Jill Biden are planning to travel to Hawaii “as soon as we can” to assess the situation firsthand and ensure that the state has access to all necessary resources. Acknowledging the challenges faced by emergency responders and search and rescue teams, Biden expressed his intention not to hinder their painstaking work.
The recovery process involves a collaboration among over a dozen federal agencies and departments, with nearly 500 federal employees deployed to Maui to assist residents in need. Addressing the criticism that he might impede rescue operations, Biden assured that his visit would be well-coordinated to avoid any interference with ongoing efforts.
Why Joe Biden Is Heading to Maui
Presidential visits to disaster sites serve various purposes – rallying support, attracting donations, and managing federal response dynamics.
President Obama, for instance, visited hurricane, tornado, and mudslide sites. The visits draw media attention, creating awareness and prompting public engagement.
The political element in presidential trips is evident, often involving both calls for collaboration and criticism from opponents.
Demands for presidential visits to disaster areas goes back to Calvin Coolidge, who deployed his commerce secretary Herbert Hoover, but the expectation has grown.
Former President George W. Bush’s decision not to visit New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina led to increased public demand for such visits.
Rising Devastation and Hawaii’s Battle Against Wildfires
Hawaii’s recent wave of wildfires has left the picturesque island of Maui reeling in the aftermath of destruction. The scale of the disaster, which has claimed at least 96 lives and inflicted over US$5.52 billion in damages, has led to contemplation about the factors behind the devastating blazes and measures to prevent future tragedies.
Wildfires, though not a novelty to Hawaii, are taking on an increasingly catastrophic form. Despite the perception of the archipelago as a tropical paradise, the leeward side of each island experiences arid conditions that are conducive to the spread of fires.
Lahaina, the epicenter of the recent wildfires, translates to “cruel sun” in Hawaiian, aptly capturing the scorching and dry nature of this part of Maui.
The wildfire equation comprises three primary components: fuel, dryness, and an ignition source. Hawaii’s key fuel is grass, which has thrived as the island’s economy shifted from agriculture to tourism. The prolonged droughts, driven by climate change, coupled with increased temperatures, create favorable conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread. A complex interplay of climate drivers, including El Niño and La Niña phases, further complicates the prediction of wildfire risks.
A recent report by Maui County underscored the rising threat posed by wildfires to citizens, properties, and sacred sites. The report highlights the need for a concerted effort to prevent ignition through public education and targeted management of fuel sources.
An article in The New York Times has also stressed how invasive grass species that contribute to the rapid spread of fires can be replaced with native plants, reducing combustible material and enhancing water retention.
While the fires have exposed vulnerabilities in Hawaii’s land management practices, the spirit of revival is palpable. Organizations like the Maui Fishpond Association and Kipahulu Ohana are spearheading efforts to reintroduce traditional forms of agriculture and aquaculture, fostering a landscape less susceptible to wildfires.
Hawaii’s absence of a dedicated climate division within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has spurred the drive for change.
According to Nature Journal, Clark University climatologist Abby Frazier and a group of colleagues are championing this cause, envisioning a future where Hawaii’s hazard preparedness benefits from seamless integration with national data products.
Georgia Gilholy is a journalist based in the United Kingdom who has been published in Newsweek, The Times of Israel, and the Spectator. Gilholy writes about international politics, culture, and education.
From the Vault