White House outlines Maui fire response, says Biden is 'deeply concerned'
Biden drew criticism when he had no comment on the death toll.
The White House on Monday outlined steps being taken to aid Maui amid its deadly wildfires, and defended against questions about President Joe Biden's response.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said the president has ordered a "whole of government" approach to the fires, now the deadliest natural disaster in state history.
"As residents continue to mourn the loss of their friends, their loved ones, their neighbors, the loss of their homes and their way of life, we know, and let them know that we are mourning with them," Criswell said as she joined the daily press briefing virtually from the island. "Nothing can prepare you for what I saw during my time here, and nothing can prepare them for the emotional toll of the impact that this severe event has taken on them."
At least 96 people have died in the fires, and officials warn that number will likely rise as search-and-rescue operations continue.
President Biden drew criticism when he appeared to say he had no comment Sunday on the mounting death toll while on a weekend vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.
When asked to respond to critics who suggested Biden shouldn't have spent time at the beach as the Maui crisis continued to unfold, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the government's response shows he is "deeply concerned" about the people of Maui.
"He's going to make sure the state has everything it needs from the federal government to recover because he is deeply concerned, and he's going to continue to be there for the government of Hawaii for as long as it takes," Jean-Pierre said, noting he has been in regular contact with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, Criswell and others on the situation unfolding there.
Biden last spoke publicly about the fires on Aug. 10 during an event in Utah. Then, in brief remarks, he said "every asset" would be made available to individuals impacted after he approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii.
Jean-Pierre said there are currently no scheduled plans for Biden to visit Maui, but the American people should expect to hear more from him on the tragedy.
Criswell, when asked about a potential Biden visit, said the president has given her the "space" to make sure they have what they need and "not disrupt operations right now."
"We just want to make sure that we are working to help this community identify everybody that's missing and we need to stay focused on that right now," Criswell said.
More cadaver dogs are being sent to work alongside the responders to continue searching for people lost in the fires.
Criswell said there are various complexities to the search effort, including the high temperatures the dogs are working in and the "extremely dangerous" conditions of the buildings. She declined to say how long the search for the missing may last, or how high the death toll may rise.
"We want to make sure that we're doing this as quickly as possible, but that we do it in a way that's methodical and appropriate and culturally sensitive to make sure that we are going to be able to account for everybody," she said. "And so, we need to give them the space and time to do that."
According to administration, 300 FEMA workers are currently on the ground and the agency has provided approximately 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots and 10,000 blankets.
To further assist survivors, FEMA has activated a transitional sheltering assistance program to help displaced residents find a hotel or motel, as well as a "critical needs" program to provide $700 to eligible people for food, water and other supplies.
Pressed by ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Mary Bruce on whether the government has been able to meet all aid requests from the state, Criswell said she believed they have enough resources and staff on the ground.
"At this point, I have no awareness of anything that we have not been able to meet, and we'll continue to build up our presence here on the island to support this," Criswell said. "This is going to be a long-term recovery operation, we have the resources we need today. And as we continue to identify what the needs are, we'll continue to move forward."
The U.S. Coast Guard, Hawaii's National Guard and some active-duty forces sprung into action after the flames broke out on Aug. 8 to assist with traffic control and fire suppression.
According to the Pentagon, as of Monday morning the Hawaii National Guard had activated approximately 251 Army National Guard and Air National Guard personnel to assist with wildfire response and recovery.
Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the military was ready to provide additional assistance, but it was up to FEMA to request it.
"We want to do everything we can to help. But we also don't want to contribute to the problem by sending unnecessary capabilities that would hinder any type of emergency response," Ryder said in a gaggle with reporters.
Ryder described U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, home to thousands of active-duty military members, as being on "a hair trigger to be able to support as necessary."
Criswell called said FEMA is in contact with Indo-Pacific Command for possible coordination on resources, and called the Department of Defense one of FEMA's "strongest partners."
-ABC's Cheyenne Haslett and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.