Biden defends Maui disaster response in face of Republican investigations

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with community members impacted by the Maui wildfires at Lahaina Civic Center, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Evan Vucci/AP

Biden defends Maui disaster response in face of Republican investigations

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President Joe Biden and top administration officials made a concerted effort Wednesday to defend his response to the deadly wildfires in Hawaii in the face of ongoing, heavy criticism.

The posturing comes as Republican lawmakers weigh opening investigations into both the state and federal response to the fires, and the administration is mobilizing federal assets to assist Florida and other Southern states in dealing with Hurricane Idalia, which has already caused at least two confirmed deaths since making landfall on Tuesday.


The president has been heartily criticized by both Hawaiians and his political opponents for the speed and scope of the federal response to the Maui fires.

Biden was vacationing in Delaware when the fires first broke out in early August and waited two weeks before stepping foot on Maui. That trip was also bookended by a second family vacation in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Hawaiians have specifically objected to the perceived slight of one-time $700 payments the Biden administration is providing to families whose homes were destroyed by the fires. Some Hawaiians, many of whom hailed from the historic town of Lahaina, say that amount of money doesn’t come close to covering their immediate needs given the elevated costs of living in the islands, let alone starting to rebuild their lives, homes, and businesses.

The president appeared to acknowledge those complaints Wednesday and pledged prolonged federal assistance with the rebuilding effort in addition to the one-time payments the administration is providing directly to families.

“When you have your home washed away, when there’s a fire that’s taken your home away, when your school has been destroyed and you can’t send your kid to school — these are urgent needs,” Biden stated. “No matter how bright, how informed, how wealthy, how poor they are, you just need reassurance. So how in God’s name are we going to get through this?”

“[First lady] Jill [Biden] and I saw the devastation in Maui firsthand, and I want to thank Gov. Josh Green [who is] doing one hell of a job along with their congressional delegation. There’s total unity out there and for everything they’re doing to support the recovery effort,” he continued. “I directed my team to do everything we can for as long as it takes to help Maui recover and rebuild in a way that respects and honors Hawaiian traditions and cultures and the needs of a local community. We’re not going to turn this into a new land grab. We’re not trying to see multimillion-dollar homes on the beach. We want to restore that part of the island like it was before, only better.”

Biden also claimed that, based on the Maui fires and other recent blazes across Western states and Canada, he doesn’t “think anybody can deny the impact of a climate crisis anymore.”

Still, there’s little Biden can say to stop House Republicans from launching investigations into both the state and federal responses. At least one Hawaiian state official has already resigned for failing to sound storm sirens during the evacuation effort.

Earlier in the day, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, herself a former state disaster response official, declined to characterize Hawaii’s response but said she would be “happy” to testify to the federal effort if called to do so by lawmakers.

Biden similarly told reporters that he would “welcome” investigations on the matter, though his comments indicate he did not fully understand the question.

“I welcome a federal response in Maui,” he responded when asked for his reaction to Republicans contemplating opening an investigation. “I think that they should go out and talk to every elected official from the mayors to the governors to the United States Senators to the congresspersons. I welcome, and once they go out and see it, I’m sure they’ll provide the money.”

While Biden’s remarks Wednesday appear to focused on reassuring Hawaiians of the federal government’s commitment to the cleanup and recovery effort, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre took a much more pointed defense of Biden’s leadership during Wednesday’s press briefing.

“The premise of your question and the way you pose your question, I disagree just for the record,” Jean-Pierre told a reporter when asked if the “robust” preparation for Idalia came as a response to criticism levied at Biden’s Maui response. “If you talk to, if you were to do your reporting and speak to the governor of Hawaii, the senators of Hawaii, the folks on the ground, they would say that the president reacted in record time when it came to dealing with the wildfires when it came to dealing and making sure that they got everything that they need on the federal level to deal with what was going on on the ground.”


“Let’s not forget there were more than 600 federal employees on the ground already to assist with the wildfires in Maui,” she continued. “So your question is wrong. It’s flawed in many, many ways, and I would advise you to go speak to the governor and the local and state officials in Hawaii.”

You can watch Biden’s remarks in full below.

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