WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden warned Wednesday that Hurricane Idalia was “still very dangerous” even though the storm had weakened after it came ashore in Florida and said he has not forgotten about the wildfire victims in Hawaii, declaring himself “laser focused” on helping them recover.
Challenged by back-to-back extreme weather episodes — wildfires that burned a historic town on the island of Maui to the ground and a hurricane that forecasters said could bring catastrophic flooding — the Democratic president who is running for a second term sought to appear in command of the federal government's response to both events.
Some Republicans in Congress have threatened to investigate the federal response in Hawaii after some Maui residents complained that the government wasn't sending enough early help.
Biden said he had spoken to the governors of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, all states affected by Idalia. He received his second briefing in as many days from Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and directed her to spend Thursday with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to start assessing the hurricane damage and the needs there.
DeSantis, who is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and Biden have clashed in recent months over the socially conservative governor's policies. as politicians from opposing parties will do. But Biden said there was no trace of politics in his storm-related conversations with the governor.
“I know that sounds strange," Biden said, noting how partisan politics have become. He recalled accompanying DeSantis in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the last major storm to wallop Florida.
“I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help and I trust him to be able to suggest that this is not about politics,” the president said. “This is about taking care of the people of the state.”
After coming ashore, Idalia made landfall near Keaton Beach at 7:45 a.m. as a high-end Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph (205 kph). It had weakened to a tropical storm with winds of 70 mph (113 kph) by Wednesday afternoon.
Biden also announced $95 million in infrastructure funds will be going to Maui to help harden the electrical grid and pay for such things as erecting stronger poles to hold up power lines or bury them underground where possible, and to deploy technology that can send alerts about power disruptions.
Some people on the island whose homes were burned have complained that authorities have refused to let them return to their properties. Biden appealed for patience, explaining that the hazardous material must be removed before anyone can return.
“We're doing everything we can to move heaven and earth to help you recover, rebuild and return to your lives,” he said, adding that the situation will be as “frustrating as the devil for people.”
“I want to be clear with the people of Maui about what to expect. The work we're doing is going to take time, in some cases a long time,” he added.
The federal government is paying to remove the debris, including hazardous material.
Biden said he understands how painful the situation is, with lives disrupted, including the start of the new school year, and people displaced.
“I get it. What can I tell you? The one thing I can tell you is we're going to be with you every step of the way,” the president said.
He met with his Cabinet on Wednesday to discuss the response in Maui and heard from Bob Fenton, the FEMA official he put in charge of overseeing the island's long-term recovery.
“We are going to make sure you are healed and you're in better shape than before,” Biden said, recalling his visit to Maui on Aug. 21. “I said when I was on the island last week we're not leaving until the job's done, and we'll be there as long as it takes.”