President Joe Biden on Wednesday pledged enduring support for Americans affected by Hurricane Idalia and the Hawaii wildfires while making clear he’s ready to blame congressional Republicans if there isn’t enough funding for the response to a confluence of natural disasters.
Biden was in full crisis management mode as the Category 3 hurricane bore down on Florida and other southern states, while on the other side of the nation Maui continued to recover from devastating wildfires.
Republicans have criticized how Biden and the federal government responded to the Hawaii fires, though officials in the state praised the support they received from the White House. The president underscored his willingness to continue providing support to both disaster sites – and said if Republicans hold up disaster assistance funding, he’d ensure the public knows who is responsible.
Speaking Tuesday, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said FEMA currently has $3.4 billion in its disaster relief fund and is now prioritizing its available funding for the looming Hurricane Idalia, the aftermath of wildfires in Maui and other extreme weather events to come. The White House sent a request for an additional $12 billion for disaster relief funding earlier this month, pairing it with requests for more security aid for Ukraine. Criswell called on Congress to pass that request to ensure emergency relief operations aren’t affected.
Biden told reporters during his White House event that if additional funding wasn’t approved, he would “point out why.”
“How can we not respond? My God. How can we not respond to these needs?” he said. “So I’m confident, even though there’s a lot of talk from some of our friends up on the Hill about the cost, we have to do it. This is the United States of America.”
Convening members of his Cabinet after speaking with southern governors, Biden said the end-of-summer convergence of natural disasters was undeniable evidence of climate change.
“I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of the climate crisis anymore,” Biden said. “Just look around: historic floods, more intense droughts, extreme heat, significant wildfires have caused significant damage like we have never seen before.”
Earlier Wednesday, Biden received a briefing on the storm from federal emergency officials and spoke by phone with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster as Idalia traveled up the East Coast.
“I let each governor I spoke with know if there’s anything the states need right now, I’m ready to mobilize that support,” Biden said.
The president offered praise for DeSantis, who’s mounting his own presidential bid to challenge Biden, noting he hasn’t detected any politics in his interactions with the Florida Republican despite “the nature of politics today.”
“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, it’s about taking care of the people of the state,” he said.
Idalia is the first major hurricane of the 2023 Atlantic season, but its arrival came as the federal emergency apparatus is already contending with the fallout of a devastating wildfire in Maui as well as flooding on the West Coast.
As part of Wednesday’s announcement, the Biden administration announced that the Department of Energy will provide $95 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law to harden Hawaii’s electric grid in the aftermath of the fires, which killed more than 100 people on Maui.
Biden visited the island early last week, pledging sustained federal support for the island and its residents. He said Wednesday he remained “laser focused” on the recovery there.
His response to the wildfires came under heavy criticism from Republicans. Although Biden spoke about the fire in its immediate aftermath, he went for a stretch afterward without making public remarks, drawing GOP backlash. This week, the Republican-led House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the federal government’s response to the Hawaii fire.
In his speech Wednesday, Biden laid out the steps he’d taken ahead of Idalia’s landfall to ensure Florida and other states had the resources they needed. Biden signed an emergency declaration Monday unlocking federal resources and said Tuesday he was in “constant contact” with authorities from Florida.
FEMA pre-positioned staff and resources to respond to the immediate impacts of Idalia, including urban search and rescue teams, disaster survivor assistance teams and incident management assistant teams; and warehouses filled with food, water, blankets and medical supplies.
The agency said Wednesday more than 1,500 federal personnel are on the ground, including 540 urban search and rescue team personnel. The US Coast Guard is supporting search and rescue, and there are three disaster survivor assistance teams deployed in Florida. Available critical supplies include 1.3 million meals and 1.6 million liters of water, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service has approved early issuance of September SNAP benefits for households receiving benefits. The US Army Corps of Engineers is also pre-positioned for power restoration efforts.