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Monday, May 20, 2024

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell En Route Maui, HI

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Maui, Hawaii

9:38 A.M. PDT

MS. DALTON: Good morning. Before I hand it over to Administrator Criswell, I want to highlight a couple of important updates on extreme weather events around the country.

Just a few moments ago, just before we took off, President Biden was able to speak to Governor Jay Inslee about the fires burning in Washington State. And he authori- — he let the governor know that he had authorized Fire Management Assistance Grants to support firefighting that is underway in the state.

With respect to Tropical Storm Hilary that we’re seeing on the ground on the West Coast, since Friday when President Biden first spoke about the tropical storm from Camp David, he has received regular briefings from senior White House staff on the path and potential impact of the storm. As soon as the storm’s path became clear, the President took immediate action and — and directed FEMA to deploy personnel and supplies to California so they could be surged to impacted communities.

He directed the U.S. Coast Guard to pre-position aircraft to allow for rapid response and search and rescue efforts. And yesterday, the President spoke to Ga- — Governor Newsom about the emergency prepared me- — preparedness measures in place.

The administration also deployed federal personnel to Nevada and continues to coordinate with Arizona, California, and Nevada to provide any resources they need. As the President said in his statement on Friday, people should continue to take this storm seriously and listen to state and local officials.

Now, today, we’re en route to Hawaii, where the President and First Lady will have a chance to meet with survivors, first responders, and officials about the tragic wildfires that have des- — devastated Maui. Over the weekend and ahead of this visit, President Biden has continued to receive regular updates from his senior team, as well as Administrator Criswell, regarding the ongoing recovery efforts underway.

Yesterday, the President also spoke to Governor Green and Maui County Mayor Bissen to get the latest updates on the ground.

During their visit today, the President and First Lady will visit Lahaina, a community of significant historical and cultural importance, to survey the damage firsthand and receive a briefing from local officials.

The President will honor the victims of the Maui wildfires and their families and affirm that the entire nation stands with the people of Hawaii during this time of grief and recovery.

As we move into the next stage of recovery, he will also announce that Bob Fenton will be named chief federal response coordinator” for Maui. Bob has been on the ground from day one and will lead the longer-term effort to help Maui rebuild and recover in the longer-term efforts ahead.

This reflects POTUS’s — the President’s commitment, as he said yesterday, to be there for Maui as long as it takes.

And with that, I’ll turn it to Administrator Criswell to make some operational updates and answer your questions.

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: All right. Thanks, Olivia. Let me just start with a of couple of updates on the other things that are going on for Tropical Storm Hilary. I did speak with the Cal OES state director this morning. What she advised me is that they have experienced some widespread localized flooding, mudslides, and some debris flows. But fortunately, Californians listened to their local officials and took the necessary preparedness actions to help protect themselves and their families.

I encourage everybody in California to continue, though, to remain vigilant and exercise extreme caution as they navigate through their neighborhoods with all the flooded roadways, the continued debris flows, and the mud.

In Washington, we are closely monitoring the fires in Washington. I did speak with Governor Inslee yesterday after he finished surveying the damage. He let me know that there was approximately 200 — over 200 homes that appear to have been destroyed. We have teams that are embedded with the state Emergency Management Office, and they’re ready to support any resource requests as needed.

And as we continue to support these efforts, as you know, I’m traveling today with the President and the First Lady to survey the damage and see the impact in Maui. He’s going to have an opportunity to speak with survivors about their loss. But also, he’s going to have an opportunity to talk with all of the emergency responders and really let them know what a great job that they have been doing.

As recovery moves into the next phase, as you just heard, our Region 9 Regional Administrator Bob Fenton is going to be designated as the chief federal response coordinator. And he’s going to make sure that he is coordinating all the long-term recovery efforts on the ground, but also ensuring that every federal asset is available to Maui to help this community rebuild.

A couple of numbers as an update from my briefing this morning. We have already distributed over $8.5 million to residents of Maui; $3.6 million of that is for direct rental assistance. And this is from 8,000 registrations, so 8,000 families that have registered for assistance.

We continue to have more than 1,000 federal responders on the ground. And this is from dozens of federal agencies — departments and agencies. There are 16 people that remain in shelters, and we have close to 2,000 people that we have already moved into hotel rooms.

And with that, I’ll take any questions that you have.

MS. DALTON: Seung Min.

Q Can you — I think the latest update that we had over the weekend was about 80 to 85 percent of the impacted area has been searched. When do you expect that figure to be 100 percent? Is that in the coming — I — I would assume it would be this week.

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: The number I did get last night was 85 percent of the area that has been searched, but we need to remember that this remaining 15 percent that’s out there includes several multistory, multifamily dwellings. I mean, so the — the search started with some of the single-family structures, single-sor- — story structures.

I think that they’re still planning on being done — their estimate — when I talked to them last week and I was there — was that they would be completed two weeks. We’ll certainly get an update today on what they think their total estimate time will be to finish those remaining buildings.

We did send in some extra teams to help facilitate those larger buildings.

Q Some residents are saying that developers are trying to buy their land. Does the administration have a position on this?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: What I can say is that the governor has committed verbally — and I’ve — I’ve talked to him about this — is that he’s not going to let that happen. And we are going to be there to support the governor and — and the city of Maui — or the county of Maui and Lahaina and how they want to rebuild.

Q Related to that, there were reports on social media that now some Maui residents are saying that they’re trying to — in non-affected areas that their landlords are moving to evict them. Is the administration aware of this? And do you have any position on that?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I would have to defer to the state and what their moratorium is on evictions. And we can — we can follow up with them.

Q On Bob Fenton: Does — does the appointment of Bob Fenton in that new role — does that come with any new powers in terms of unlocking aid or is it more of an oversight role overseeing this in the long run?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: It’s definitely an oversight role. Bob is one of our most experienced emergency managers. And he’s got great experience in making sure that we can bring the entire federal family together to support solutions to problems, li- — like he did with monkeypox and Operation Allies Welcome.

And that’s what he’s going to be able to do here is provide that level of oversight and coordination to make sure all of the federal departments and agencies are bringing all the resources that they can to help this community rebuild and recover.

Q Just stepping back for a second, can you give us a sense for what the President — how the President believes the response has been so far? Is he happy with all of it? Is there — are there things that he believes should have been done differently or done in a — in a separate manner? Or is this a — been something that he has been pleased with?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, I continue to provide the President updates on what the response efforts are. And he always says, “What else can we do?” And we continue to move more resources in.

I think based on the updates and the communication that I have had with the President, he is satisfied with our response, but he will always push us to make sure that we are doing as much as we can and bring in more resources if needed to support this community.

Q And given that you all are managing and monitoring multiple weather-related, climate-related, natural disaster-related events across the country, do you feel confident that you’re going to be able to keep up with the resources that you have in responding to different — you know, different emergencies?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, we have a very layered approach to our staffing. We have our disaster reservists, which are really the foundation of our ability to surge and go into communities that have been impacted by disasters.

We have additional disaster response permanent staff that are located within our regions and headquarters. They’re our initial footprint to go out there and support the — these types of events.

We rely on a lot of support from our federal partners through mission assignments. But we can also tap into our other permanent full-time staff that don’t do this in their blue-sky days. And we can mobilize them to support disaster response efforts as needed.

And then we also have a tool called our Surge Capacity Force, which gives us the ability to reach out to a number of volunteers that have said that they would want to assist across the Department of Homeland Security. So it allows us to tap into over 6,000 additional DHS employees to come in and support our efforts if needed.

Q And what can you tell us about the air quality in the affected area? I — has the EPA sort of started that process to examine the level of toxins and whether — how — if — if it poses any danger to residents who are still there?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: We have mission-assigned EPA to come in and assist with the debris removal and air monitoring. I have not heard any concerns over air monitoring, but we would have to get with the EPA on anything specific.

Q What is your funding situation? Are you — do you have plenty of —

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: (Inaudible.)

Q — funding? Do you have plenty of money or do you — are you going to need more?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: As I have been stating for the last several weeks now that we anticipate the Disaster Relief Fund to go into a negative balance sometime in the beginning to middle of September. What that means — and we take into account as we’re doing that analysis events just like this so we can continue to respond and make sure that we can surge the federal government in.

As we approach that negative balance, what we will end up doing is we start to put — push some of our recovery projects across the country into the next fiscal year to ensure that we have enough funding to continue to support the immediate response needs for this event and anything else that might come up over the next several weeks before the end of the fiscal year.

Q And the reply to — and the replenishment of that fund that was requested with the supplemental: Is there any projection as to how long that would last, with the caveat that you don’t know whatever disasters may arise at any moment?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, the supplemental amount that we requested, which was $12 billion, will just allow us to continue working as normal through the end of this fiscal year. And as we continue to see the impacts of what these disasters are bringing, we’re going to have to closely analyze, you know, how much is going to be needed to continue to support the increase in the number of these severe weather events with these truly complex recoveries that we’ve been responding to.

Q Has the administration given — and this might be for Olivia actually. Has the administration given any more thought to a national disaster safety board? That legislation has been introduced in the House. Or —

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: (Inaudible) that legislation.

Q (Inaudible) there would be a —-

MS. DALTON: Not something we have an update on today.

Q — a, sort of, national investigative body that would look into the causes with the concern that some have raised here that a state-led investigation here may really be the, sort of, investigators or the same people or the same authorities that may have been responsible for some of the issues?

MS. DALTON: I —

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: We need more information on that one.

MS. DALTON: Yeah, we’ll have to take that question and come back to you.

Obviously, the ATF is supporting the state investigation into what transpired and initiated these wildfires to begin with.

Q Now that school is about to start in Hawaii —

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: What is?

Q What — that school is about to start in Hawaii. Can you describe how FEMA is helping students whose schools may have been destroyed get back into classrooms and not be affected in terms of their education?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I think we’re up to four or five schools that have been destroyed as a result of this fire. When I spoke with the governor when I was on the ground, he had already made plans to have the children go into other schools to start the school year.

But one of the things that we do is we can bring in temporary school facilities for children to move back into their area. And so, as we continue the efforts of, you know, continuing to search for remains and then begin the debris removal, we’ll work with the governor on what he wants, right? Does he want a temporary school closer to where people are or having them attend other schools around Maui if that’s sufficient? Whichever path he wants to go is what we’llsupport.

MS. DALTON: Any other questions for the Administrator? Okay.

Q Thank you, Administrator.

Q Thank you so much.

MS. DALTON: Have you guys got anything else for me?

Q Well, we didn’t (inaudible). (Laughter.)

Q You know, the — there’s been a lot of Maui residents who’ve — despite all the efforts that you’ve been detailing — are still frustrated with the response. So how has the President been preparing for what could be a tough reception when he meets with the survivors and first responders today?

MS. DALTON: Look, you’ve heard from the President directly. He knows these folks in the community have been through something devastating and traumatic. Today, he’ll meet with parents who’ve lost children and children who’ve lost parents and first responders who saved other’s homes while their own built — burned to the ground.

So I think it — it’s going to be an emotional day for everyone. And the President certainly intends to stand with them and make sure that — that he communicates to them that not only have we been there since day one — has he been there since day one, but, as he said yes- — just yesterday, he intends for his administration to be there for Maui as long as it takes.

And that’s part of why he’s announcing this role today — Bob Fenton — who has been on the ground from day one, as you heard from the Administrator — going to be there over the long term to make sure that not just today and tomorrow but into the future, there is a coordinated, strategic, federal response, because this is going to be a long, hard process.

As you’ve heard from a number of officials in recent days and weeks, it’s going to be a long-term recovery. And certainly, Bob is committed to being there on the ground and making sure that, as Deanne just said, we’re bringing the full federal family together to ensure that Maui has whatever it needs.

I also just want to take a step back, because I think it’s important to remember that the President has been there from day one marshaling a whole-of-government response to this — to the — to the wildfires.

And just to put a little bit of a finer point on that, from the earliest hours after these wildfires broke out and we saw the reports, the President engaged. I can tell you: On Thursday, August 10th, when the President was in Utah for the PACT Act anniversary event — that morning, he received — at 10:32 a.m., the White House received a major disaster declaration request from the state of Hawaii from the governor’s office. By 11:35, 63 minutes later, that had made its way through the White House, gone out to Utah, been printed and signed by this President. Sixty-three minutes.

Within hours after that he had spoken to the governor to confirm that he signed that major disaster declaration. And then he went out and he gave remarks to the world about it at a event that you all covered, that was covered on live television.

And in the days after that, he continued to receive daily briefings from his staff, engaged with state and local officials. You don’t have to take my word for it; I think you’re going to hear from state and local officials in Hawaii today about just how engaged and committed this President has been in the last two weeks.

And that has continued all the way up through yesterday, where, as Administrator Criswell alluded to, we had another 90-minute briefing with the President yesterday, in which she continued to ask the tough questions and make sure that we’re doing everything that we possibly can to accelerate the recovery.

So this President has been engaged. He’s been committed. And, again, he’s going to deliver the message today that he is going to be there for Maui every step of the way in the weeks and months and years ahead.

Q Olivia, I understand there will be some climate activists on the ground to, again, push the administration for a national emergency declaration on climate. I know when you’ve been asked this before, you’ve laid out his extensive record on the issue. But I’m curious if there’s anything that could happen or any factor that could arise that would change the administration’s calculus and prompt you guys to issue such a declaration.

MS. DALTON: Well, look, I think the President has been really clear that in practical terms, he has been very clear that we have a climate emergency upon us. You know, he’s declared it the existential threat of our time. He has taken historic action.

We just marked the anniversary of the IRA, the most significant climate bill in history — in American history, last week — a bill that is going to enable us to meet the President’s ambitious goals of reducing our emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

He’s conserved a historic amount of land. He continues to take aggressive action — even from day one, rejoining the Paris Agreement and so on.

So, this is a president who has been more aggressive than any other president in American history on tackling the climate crisis.

And I would just note that with respect to the emergency authorities you’re refer- — referencing: Last year, he did name climate as the basis for invoking the Defense Production Act and jumpstarting the production of domestic heat pump technology and other clean energy technologies, so — and setting aside $500 million for that effort.

So, this President has taken serious action and he will continue to take serious action to address the climate crisis and treat it as the urgent crisis that it is.

Q You mentioned that the President has asked tough ques- — is asking tough questions in briefings of local leaders. Can you shed light on what some of those questions are? Just because he’s having conversations with leadership, and that makes sense. But people on the ground, as I’m sure you all have read and know, are asking their own tough questions about how this happened and what’s — you know, what’s coming their way to help prevent it from happening again and help them out of it.

So, if you could — if you could shed any light on some of the tough questions he might be asking of his team, that would be great.

MS. DALTON: Absolutely. Well, you heard — and Administrator Criswell just alluded to it — but he’s al- — always asking not just for updates but what more can we do.

And so you’ve seen the numbers, as we’ve read out over the recent days, how we’ve steadily surged additional first — federal personnel into the region. We now have more than a thousand personnel on the ground. You’ve seen the increase and the acceleration of deployment of critical needs assistance to thousands of families in the region at the same time as you’re seeing the numbers of folks in the shelters decrease.

So, we’ve been reading out those updates and showing our work on the progress to support the community. But the President is, as the Administrator said, continuing to af- — ask tough questions of the team about what more we can do to accelerate the recovery; how can we get the money out the door faster; how can we solve for challenges that people are — are facing and that state local officials are telling us about.

So he’s asking all those questions and ensuring that FEMA is continuing to do the hard work of figuring out how we break down barriers and move critical assistance out to people as fast as possible.

Q Olivia, would the President like to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince at the G20 in India?

MS. DALTON: I don’t have anything to preview on that at this moment.

Q Some — something being talked about? Considered?

MS. DALTON: I saw that report, but we don’t have anything to announce at this time.

Q Can you say — because we’re — we won’t see the President for the rest of the week, can you say what he’s been doing on vacation? I know we — because when he’s on his other vacations, we kind of see more of him. Can you say what he’s been doing on this vacation?

MS. DALTON: Well, as you know, we arrived very late on Friday. And I think we read out pretty much his entire day yesterday to you all, because he had a very lengthy briefing with his senior team and Administrator Criswell. And he also had a number of calls with state and local officials yesterday about the extreme weather events throughout the country.

Other than that, I can’t shed any light on how he’s spending some valuable quality family time out here. But certainly, he has been engaged on a daily basis in confronting some of these extreme events we’re seeing.

Q Do you know — does he plan to watch the Republican debate on Wednesday?

MS. DALTON: I don’t know. I sure hope not. (Laughter.) I hop- — I hope he — for his sake. So — but I don’t — I don’t know, actually.

Q Are you receiving updates on the — the government funding situation that’s happening in September? And has he indicated whether he would sign a short-term spending bill to prevent a shutdown?

MS. DALTON: I don’t have anything to announce today on that. No — no — no new updates.

Certainly, we continue to work with Congress in the meantime on the supplemental requests we’ve put forward.

Q Thank you.

Q One follow-up. Monday, I believe, is the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. Does the President and the White House have plans to — or what are the plans to mark that anniversary?

MS. DALTON: We certainly will be marking it. The President will be marking it. I don’t have anything to announce today, but stay tuned on that.

Q Okay.

MS. DALTON: All right. Thanks, everybody.

Q Thank you.

9:59 A.M. PDT

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2023/08/21/press-gaggle-by-principal-deputy-press-secretary-olivia-dalton-and-fema-administrator-deanne-criswell-en-route-maui-hi/

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