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Biden to reprise consoler-in-chief role in Maui
The president is expected to summon his signature empathy and compassion to inspire hope in a community devastated by the deadly wildfires.
BIDEN TO SEE DEVASTATION AND RESILIENCE UP CLOSE • When President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden travel later this morning to the historic town of Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii, the scene of the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century, they’ll find an island decimated by wildfires that have destroyed an estimated 2,000-plus acres of land and claimed the lives of at least 114 people.
The trip comes as House progressives and climate activists call on the president to declare a national climate emergency, a move they say would expand his authority to take further action to mitigate the damage from the storms, fires, floods, and other extreme weather events that have become commonplace in the US.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters over the weekend that the president will see the devastation firsthand and the federal government's progress since he declared the state’s major disaster declaration last week within hours of Democratic Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii’s request last week.
“I would say above all, he’s going to also see a resilient community that has come together to help one another,” Criswell said. “That’s what I saw in Maui last week. And he is going to be able to personally stand with the community—him and the first lady—to reassure them that the entire federal government is going to be with them every step of the way.”
The schedule: Once the Bidens arrive in Maui, they will board helicopters for an aerial tour of impacted areas before landing near Lahaina to visit the town to see the wildfire damage up close. The president will also get an operational update from state and local officials.
President Biden will then give a speech where he’s expected to pay respects to the lives lost and reflect on the last impacts of the wildfires on the community. This is usually when he steps into his role as consoler-in-chief, summoning a signature mix of empathy and compassion borne from his own experience with tragic loss.
“I know how profoundly loss can impact a family and a community and I know nothing can replace the loss of life,” Biden said in a statement on Sunday ahead of the visit. “I will do everything in my power to help Maui recover and rebuild from this tragedy. And throughout our efforts, we are focused on respecting sacred lands, cultures, and traditions.”
Following his speech, The Bidens will meet with survivors, first responders, community members, and other officials and volunteers who are supporting the recovery efforts before returning to Nevada where they are vacationing with family.
What’s next: Upon its return to Washington next month, Congress will be urged by the White House to consider the Biden administration’s request for supplemental funding, including $12 billion for disaster relief.
The disaster aid is included in a package that includes additional funding for military, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and billions of dollars for border management operations.
Some lawmakers have indicated a preference to take up the disaster relief request in a stand-alone bill separate from Ukraine aid and border security funding. This will be one of many pressing and complicated legislative chores facing the House and Senate this fall.
While in Maui, Biden will appoint FEMA Region 9 Administrator Bob Fenton as the chief federal response coordinator to coordinate and oversee the long-term federal recovery.
A White House official described Fenton, who led the administration’s response to the mpox outbreak in 2022 and has been on the ground in Hawaii from the day the wildfires started, as one of the nation’s most experienced disaster response-and-recovery officials.
“As the recovery moves into a next phase, the president has directed Mr. Fenton to make sure every member of this devastated community has access to everything the federal government can offer to heal and rebuild as possible,” the official added.
A top priority for Fenton will be to streamline the cumbersome process survivors have experienced while applying for FEMA aid in recent days. For example, some say they’ve been turned away because they are living in a group setting and sharing an address that mismatches the one on the documentation they’ve been asked to provide. The White House said officials on the ground would continue to work with survivors on an individual basis to match their personal circumstances to the assistance they may be eligible for.
As the Biden administration continues to support state and local search and recovery efforts, Criswell told reporters that survivors want to start the process of understanding what the road ahead looks like for them—on their own terms.
“I think the thing that I hear that the people on the ground need most is they just want to make sure that they’re going to be able to rebuild the way they want to rebuild,” she said. “And that as the federal government comes in, that we’re supporting them with their vision of what Lahaina is going to look like in the future.”
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IN THE KNOW
MAUI WILDFIRES • Ahead of the first couple’s visit, the White House released an updated list of data and actions from the government’s response. A few highlights:
The Transportation Department announced $3 million—the maximum amount of “quick release” emergency relief funds requested by the Hawaii state government—to offset costs for traffic management services and infrastructure repairs as a result of the wildfire damage.
1,000 federal personnel are on the ground, including 450 search and rescue team members and 40 canines trained to identify remains.
The Biden administration has approved $8.2 million in assistance to over 2,700 households, including $3.4 million in initial rental assistance. (It’s unclear at press time how many households are eligible for assistance and the number that have applied.)
FEMA has made more than 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots, and 10,000 blankets and shelter supplies available to the local government for distribution.
TROPICAL STORM HILARY • In addition to the Maui wildfires, the US is dealing with another extreme weather event on Sunday in the form of Hilary, the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in more than eight decades.
For context: Some areas of the state got more than half an average year’s worth of rain in a few hours.
Even more alarming: The region was rocked by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake during the storm as it braced for more floods.
President Biden said in a statement on Sunday that he continues to be briefed on the storm and his administration will provide additional assistance as requested.
The storm is expected to weaken as it makes its way north over California and Nevada while still producing heavy rain and strong winds.
OPIOID CRISIS • Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Russell Fry (R-S.C.) introduced a bill that would require a federal government official to submit a report to Congress to help lawmakers understand the impact of the fentanyl crisis on American taxpayers.
The introduction of the legislation comes as recent polling shows Americans view opioids and fentanyl as the number-one health threat in the country.
The bill would focus on seven specific areas: the labor market, industry sectors, federal tax revenue, federal benefits programs, federal health programs, housing instability, and state finances.
“To combat the fentanyl crisis effectively, we need to understand the full scope of the problem,” Gallego said. “By reporting on the impacts of the fentanyl crisis on the labor market, health programs, housing, and more, the Fentanyl Crisis Research and Evaluation Act will give Congress the information we need to mitigate the burden on states and the American people.”
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All times Eastern
9 a.m. President Biden will get his daily intelligence briefing.
10:40 a.m. The president and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden will travel from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to Maui, Hawaii, arriving at 5:10 p.m.
11:25 p.m. President Biden and Dr. Biden will leave Maui to return to Lake Tahoe where they will remain until Saturday, arriving at 3:15 a.m.
2:25 p.m. Vice President Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will travel from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, arriving at 7 p.m.
Biden’s week ahead:
Saturday: The president and first lady to the White House from Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
Harris’s week ahead:
Friday: The vice president and second gentleman will welcome the Las Vegas Aces to the White House to celebrate their 2022 WNBA championship.
The House is out.
The Senate is out.
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