“My wife, Jill, and I are going to travel to Hawaii as soon as we can,” Biden said in a speech focused on the economy at a manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. “That’s what I’ve been talking to the governor about, but I don’t want to get in the way.”
Biden had not addressed the Maui wildfires since last week, when he declared a federal emergency and issued a statement with condolences for the families of those who died. His relative silence had drawn criticism from Republicans, which led to pushback from the White House.
Biden spoke with Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii and Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, during his flight to Milwaukee, White House officials said.
The governor, a Democrat, thanked Biden on Tuesday for the federal government’s support in the Maui crisis.
“Mahalo for having our backs in this time of need with the full force of the federal government,” Green wrote on Facebook over a posting of the White House announcement.
Frustrated residents of West Maui have complained that victims were receiving less disaster aid from the government than from their own ad hoc volunteer network.
In recent days, however, hundreds of FEMA workers have been on the ground in Maui, including Criswell. The governor has also been in regular contact with the White House.
By Monday afternoon, more than 3,000 people had registered with FEMA for federal assistance, according to Jeremy Greenberg, the director of the agency’s operations division.
FEMA is typically the first agency to face intense scrutiny after disasters, but while it plays a critical role in disaster response, its mission is to support states with funding and other resources, not to be the first on the scene.
Maui is still reeling from the deadliest wildfire in the nation in more than a century.
Recovery teams with cadaver dogs are searching for bodies in the ruins of incinerated cars, houses, businesses and historic landmarks and painstakingly working to identify the dead and notify their families. Only about one-quarter of the burn area has been searched, and the toll is expected to rise substantially.
The fire devastated much of the west side of Maui, including Lahaina, a coastal community of 13,000 that was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, and wiped out more than 2,000 structures, the vast majority of them residential.
Biden said in his remarks Tuesday that he wanted to ensure that his visit didn’t disrupt recovery efforts, before ticking through the assistance the federal government has begun to provide, including supplies, one-time cash payments and additional personnel to aid firefighters and relieve emergency workers.