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Hawaii wildfires: Joe Biden visits devastated island of Maui following days of criticism

US President Joe Biden has visited the fire-ravaged Hawaiian island of Maui following days of criticism for his response to the crisis.

Mr Biden told survivors of the devastating wildfires which broke out on August 8 that the nation “grieves with you” and pledged the Government would help to rebuild “for as long as it takes”.

The president had faced criticism for not visiting Maui sooner, with some 800 people still missing and the death toll at 114.

Speaking to survivors next to a severely-burned 150-year-old banyan tree, Mr Biden said: “Today it’s burned but it’s still standing. The tree survived for a reason. I believe it’s a very powerful symbol of what we can and will do to get through this crisis."

Mr Biden, and first lady Jill, were given a tour of the devastation in Lahaina, the historic town of 13,000 people that was virtually destroyed by the flames.

They also met with first responders and members of the community, and were briefed by state and local officials about the ongoing response.

President Joe Biden speaks as he meet with community members impacted by the Maui wildfires (AP)
President Joe Biden speaks as he meet with community members impacted by the Maui wildfires (AP)

Mr Biden, who interrupted a vacation in California to visit Maui, spoke after a helicopter tour with first lady Jill Biden, the state governor and lawmakers from the Kahului airport, along the coast to the ruins of Lahaina.

As his motorcade passed through neighbourhoods in Lahaina, many onlookers greeted the Bidens with the shaka, a hand gesture of thumb and little finger extended that signals “aloha”.

However, a handful of other people held up raised middle fingers.

The president, who is seeking re-election in 2024, was criticised by some Republicans over the wildfires because he went several days without speaking about the tragedy while vacationing at his Delaware beach house.

But the White House said he approved a Hawaii disaster declaration within about an hour of receiving it and he had not wanted to travel to Maui until he was assured he would not interfere with emergency response efforts.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green said on Sunday that “an army of search and rescue teams" with 41 dogs have covered 85 per cent of the impacted area in the search for the missing.

Nearly 2,000 people on the island remain without power and 10,000 are without telecom connectivity, according to official estimates. Water in parts of west Maui is not safe to drink.

While immediate aid such as water, food and blankets has been readily distributed to residents, officials said essentials such as mobile phones that people would need to help them enrol in longer-term aid programs were burned in the fires, adding more challenges.