President Joe Biden sees devastation of Maui fires firsthand, says recovery will respect Hawaiian traditions

While standing near the 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, Biden praised the "incredible courage" of the people of Maui.

LAHAINA, Hawaii – President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrived in Maui on Monday, nearly two weeks after deadly brush fires swept through parts of the island, killing at least 114 people.

The brush fires broke out on Aug. 8, fueled by 70 mph winds moving flames at highway speeds across the historic town of Lahaina and areas of Upcountry Maui. The fires destroyed about 2,200 homes, displacing an estimated 4,500 people.

The Bidens arrived in Maui on Monday to meet with families, first responders and see the destruction in Lahaina firsthand. 


While standing near the 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, Biden praised the "incredible courage" of the people of Maui.

The president's visit comes as Maui fire survivors are growing critical of the federal response to the fires and questioning the number of unaccounted-for individuals. The fires destroyed whole communities, and cadaver dogs continue to search for remains. 

Biden reflected on learning of the death of his late wife and 1-year-old daughter, who died in a car crash in 1972.

"The difference between knowing somebody is gone and worrying whether they're available to come back, two different things," Biden said.

The exact number of people missing after the fires recently changed after lists from the FBI, Red Cross and Maui police of missing people were combined this week. Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a video that 850 names are on the combined list of missing persons.

Only a few of the 114 dead have been identified. Those with missing relatives are asked to submit DNA to help identify remains. 

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said over the weekend it’s "possible that there will be many children" among the unaccounted for. This week students will begin returning to schools on Maui.

"It's one thing to know, but it's quite another thing to have to wait to wonder whether your family member is going to be OK," Biden said. "Imagine being a parent wondering whether your child is."

Biden met with first responders and fire survivors. He said he heard stories of hope and heroism with the aloha spirit. The Maui community has responded to the deadly fires by helping their neighbors.

The president said the rebuilding process should focus on Hawaiian traditions and history. During his visit, the president and first lady participated in a blessing ceremony with the Lahaina elders before walking among the burned town.

"By understanding the deep history and meaning of the sacred ground and establishing your community not to change (its) character, but to reestablish it," Biden said. 

Green praised the Biden Administration's response to the fires, saying that the president "met our needs with the federal movement" within 6 hours.