U.S. President Joe Biden and Jill Biden will travel to Hawaii on Monday to survey the devastation from deadly wildfires that destroyed much of the Maui resort town of Lahaina last week and killed at least 110 people.
Biden will get a first-hand look at the damage and meet with first responders, survivors and federal, state and local officials, the White House said in a statement.
“I remain committed to delivering everything the people of Hawaii need as they recover from this disaster,” Biden said in a post on the social media platform X, previously known as Twitter.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has warned the death toll could double.
The inferno spread rapidly from grasslands outside town into Lahaina last Tuesday, catching people by surprise and charring a 13 square-kilometre area of town in hours. The fire destroyed 2,200 buildings and caused an estimated $5.5 billion US in damage, officials said.
In Lahaina, local officials on Wednesday reopened a main road through town for the first time in days, responding to frustration from locals.
“We felt it was necessary, after seven days, to begin to restore some psychological normalcy for people as they travel,” Green said in a news briefing Wednesday, as he reiterated a plea that people only travel if necessary.
The highway, which bypasses the charred waterfront and town centre, was previously closed to all but residents of the surrounding area, first responders and people who work in local businesses.
A brief relaxation of the road closures earlier in the week was suspended after onlookers jammed streets used by search teams, raising fears that the traffic would compromise efforts to recover human remains.
Green said there is also a strong military presence in the area, but that reports of looting and violence being reported in social media are largely untrue.
“What we have seen bear out in reality is not significant violence and not significant looting,” he said, though he said the force was there “for safety.”
Hundreds still missing
Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for. Up to 40 cadaver dogs are now leading teams on a block-by-block search that has covered 38 per cent of the disaster area, Green said Wednesday.
Identification of the remains has been slow, in part because of the intensity of the fire. To assist with identification and processing of remains, the U.S. government has deployed additional experts from a disaster mortuary operational response team, increasing the number of personnel to 75, Jonathan Greene, a Health and Human Services official, told reporters on Tuesday.
The team includes coroners, pathologists, X-ray technicians and lab technicians. A disaster portable morgue unit landed in Hawaii on Tuesday with almost 20 tonnes of supplies and equipment including mortuary examination tables and laboratory equipment to support the collection of DNA in the identification of victims.
On Wednesday Biden approved Hawaii’s request that the federal government reimburse the full cost of 30 days of the emergency work expected to be carried out over the next four months, said Deanne Criswell, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration, during a news briefing at the White House.
FEMA opened its first disaster recovery centre on Maui, “an important first step” toward helping residents get information about assistance, Criswell said. There are nearly 500 FEMA workers on the ground.
The federal government so far has disbursed $2.3 million US in assistance to families, and approved more than 1,300 registrations for assistance, Criswell said in Wednesday’s briefing.