1 of 5 | President Joe Biden and Hawaii Gov. Josh Green embrace amid the burnt-out remains of Lahaina's Front Street, where Biden promised the people of Hawaii that the country will "do everything possible to help you recover, rebuild and respect your culture and traditions." Photo courtesy of Gov. Josh Green
Aug. 21 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visited Maui on Monday, nearly two weeks after wind-fueled wildfires killed 114 people, as the president pledged long-term support to rebuild Lahaina "not to change its character, but to re-establish it."
After taking an aerial tour of the island aboard Marine One and surveying the burnt-out remains of Lahaina's Front Street, Biden called the devastation "overwhelming."
In addition to the 114 people killed in the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, 850 others remain unaccounted for, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen announced before the president's visit.
Biden expressed his condolences Monday to the people of Hawaii in front of burned out businesses and Lahaina's ancient Banyan Tree, which survived.
"To my left is the Banyan Tree, beloved by this community for more than 150 years, here in the former capitol of the kingdom of Hawaii that has stood for generations as a sacred spot of exceptional significance," Biden said.
"Today it's burned, but it's still standing. The tree survived for a reason. I believe it is a powerful, a very powerful symbol of what we can and will do to get through this crisis," Biden added. "For as long as it takes, we will be with you. The whole country will be with you."
During his speech, Biden announced he would appoint a senior federal emergency official to oversee long-term recovery efforts.
"Today, I appointed Bob Fenton as our chief federal response coordinator for Maui in our long-term recovery work," Biden said. "He's one of the nation's most experienced disaster response and recovery experts in America."
"I am directing him to make sure the community has everything, everything the federal government can offer to heal and to rebuild as fast as possible."
Biden also related his experience of losing his first wife and young daughter in a car accident decades ago to what the people of Maui must be feeling.
"I know the feeling of many of people in this town, this community. That hollow feeling you have in your chest like you're being sucked in a black hole, wondering 'will I ever get by this?'" Biden shared.
"Our country grieves with you, stands with you and we'll do everything possible to help you recover, rebuild and respect your culture and traditions when rebuilding takes place."
It's been nearly two weeks since the tragic wildfires erupted in Hawaii on Aug. 8, burning thousands of acres on Maui island, including the historic town of Lahaina.
During their visit, the president and first lady met with survivors, first responders and emergency personnel as well as state and local officials.
While Biden's trip follows early backlash to his slow public response to the fires and a "no comment" when asked about the rising death toll during his Delaware vacation, the president said he was in early contact with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green and signed a Major Disaster Declaration to mobilize a "whole of government response" with the help of the Coast Guard, Navy and Army.
"Right now, there are over 450 search and rescue experts working around the clock," Biden said. "FEMA has provided 55,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 beds, 10,000 blankets. They've been working to remove debris and repair roads and restore power."
Biden said the Department of Housing and Urban Development is working with the state to help survivors move from emergency housing into temporary housing.
The Small Business Administration is making low-interest, federal disaster loans to Hawaiian businesses, "many of them you see here burned to the ground."
And the president directed those who need help to visit FEMA's disaster recovery center at Maui College or check FEMA's website for disaster assistance.
On Saturday, Maui county confirmed a death toll of 114 with 85% of the disaster area searched.
However, Gov. Josh Green told CBS News' Face The Nation on Sunday that hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.
"It will take several weeks, still -- some of the challenges are going to be extraordinary," he said.
Army search and rescue teams and 41 dogs are involved in the effort that is now moving to inspect larger buildings, which requires the need to sift through the walls and structures, he said.
"The last 15% could take weeks," he said. "We do have extreme concerns that because of the temperature of the fire, the remains of those who have died, in some cases, may be impossible to recover meaningfully. So there are going to be people that are lost forever."
He warned that among the dead could be "many children" who were home during the day because of school closures.
"This is the largest catastrophe and disaster that's ever hit Maui, probably that's ever hit Hawaii outside of wartime events," he said. "Right now we are trying to make sure everyone is sheltered, and we begin to get all the federal resources we can to make life in some way livable for the survivors. That's where we are at the moment."
In an update posted to his Facebook page on Sunday, a tired-looking Green said more than 1,800 people displaced by the fires have been housed in hotel rooms, leaving "very few people" in shelters.
More than 7,000 have applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency support, he said, as he promised to listen to the people of Maui when it comes to rebuilding.
"It's my job to go get the resources we need, but then I'll be taking input from everyone across our state, and we will listen to the voices of Lahaina to tell us how and when we rebuild."