Biden pledges federal disaster assistance to victims of Maui wildfires

August 11, 2023

President Biden on Thursday approved a major disaster declaration for Hawaii, amid deadly wildfires in Maui aggravated by hurricane-force winds.

At least 55 people had been killed as of Friday morning, but with potentially 1,000 still missing that number was expected to continue to rise.

The flames first erupted early Tuesday. Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from that passing hurricane, at least three wildfires so far have raged on Maui, the most serious of which left the town of Lahaina with scorched, skeletal remains of buildings and palm trees. 

According to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D), by Wednesday some 35,000 people in Kula, Kīhei, and Lahaina were under threat along with homes, businesses and utilities, after the fierce winds made it “impossible” to provide aircraft support during the early part of the week.

During a speech in Utah marking the one-year anniversary of the PACT Act, which expanded medical benefits to military veterans suffering from chemical exposures, Biden took time to address the disaster in Hawaii, stating that “all available Federal assets” will be directed to help local efforts.

He stated that he had directed FEMA Director Deanne Criswell to streamline the process for getting survivors registered for immediate federal assistance.

“I’ve directed that we surge support to these brave firefighters and first responders and emergency personnel working around the clock.  They’re risking their lives,” Biden remarked during his speech.

Biden also said he’d ordered U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy Third Fleet and the Army to assist local emergency response crews along with the Hawaii National Guard.

On NPR Friday, Criswell said the disaster declaration allows FEMA “to bring in all of our federal partners to support any of the remaining response teams as they’re still working to extinguish the fires and as they need additional debris removal assets. All of that is covered within this.”

She added that FEMA’s Individual Assistance program will provide reimbursement or cash assistance for some of the needed repairs.

“We also understand that people have lost everything,” she said, “so this is designed to jumpstart their recovery,” including providing long-term temporary housing, crisis counseling and disaster unemployment assistance.

“The focus the next few days is on making sure we have all the right resources to save lives, but also to support those people that are currently being sheltered,” said Criswell.

She stated that there was no timetable for how long FEMA expects to stay on site in Maui. “We will be there as long as the governor needs us there.” 

PHOTO: Maui Wildfire, August 8

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