WASHINGTON – U.S. President Joe Biden again has taken on the role of consoler in chief, this time in Florida, where family members of 145 people missing in the partial collapse of a high-rise residential building are waiting for word about their loved ones.
“They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished slightly,” the president said Thursday of recovery efforts. At a minimum, “they want to recover the bodies.”
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said search and rescue efforts resumed late Thursday after being called off earlier in the day because the building was feared unstable.
The number of confirmed deaths was 18, including two children.
The president spoke to about 200 family members at a Miami Beach hotel, then he and first lady Jill Biden went table to table conversing with them in smaller groups, according to the White House, which said the Bidens were joined by the state’s two U.S. senators, Governor Ron DeSantis and other Florida politicians.
Biden, a Democrat, noted the bipartisan support among Florida’s politicians who have responded to the scene. Florida’s governor and both senators all Republicans.
“There’s no disagreement, no bickering. Everybody’s on the same team. It’s what America is all about. It’s about pulling together, leaving nobody behind,” Biden said. “There’s no Democrat or Republican out there. They’re just people wanting to do the right thing for their fellow Americans.”
Before visiting a memorial near the site of the tragedy in the oceanfront community of nearly 6,000 residents, Biden announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would provide temporary housing and other urgent needs for those made homeless by the disaster.
At the memorial, around the corner from the destruction, the first lady placed a bouquet of white flowers. The couple paused and held hands — the mangled metal balconies of the tower in the backdrop.
The president also met earlier with some of the search and rescue team members who Biden said are “under a great deal of stress.”
As the president sat with officials for a briefing, he reached to his right, briefly touched the hand of DeSantis and said, “You know what’s good about this? We’re letting the nation know we can cooperate.”
DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate and an ally of former President Donald Trump, thanked Biden, saying, “You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one, and you’ve been very supportive.”
The governor noted “we have families with kids missing, and we even have young newlyweds who hadn’t even been married a year who were in the tower when it collapsed.”
The search and rescue operation on the site of what had been a 12-story condominium is the largest non-hurricane response in the state’s history, according to DeSantis.
In his Thursday afternoon remarks, Biden said, “We don’t have any firm proof of what happened. There’s all kinds of rational speculation,” including about rusted rebar and the quality of the cement and limestone used in the construction.
Climate change, the president noted, also could have played a role, something he said survivors and family members raised, specifically mentioning the impact of global warming and sea levels rising.
“I don’t think there is, at this point, any definitive judgment as to why it collapsed, and what can be done to prevent it from happening, and what other buildings may have to be inspected to determine if they have the same problems,” Biden said.
‘Major structural damage’
A 2018 engineering report noted “major structural damage” to a concrete slab beneath the building’s ground-floor pool and “abundant cracking” in the concrete structure of the parking garage.
Bids for millions of dollars in repair work were still pending when the building collapsed.
The president announced that the National Institute of Standards and Technology would try to determine why the building crumpled.
At a Thursday news conference, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava explained the decision earlier in the day to suspend rescue efforts.
“We were forced to halt operations on the collapse in the early hours of the morning due to structural concerns about the standing structure,” she said. “We’re doing everything that we can to ensure the safety of our first responders is paramount and to continue our search and rescue operations as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Fear of further failure
Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky highlighted the dangerous nature of the day-and-night effort to try to find anyone still alive underneath the rubble and explained the temporary suspension of search and rescue efforts.
“On the south side of the structure, near the north and south corners of the building, it could cause additional failure to the building,” he said at the news conference.
Florida emergency response officials said they were monitoring the potential development of tropical cyclones that could threaten the area by early next week and were making plans so they could continue work at the collapse site, as well as fulfill emergency response efforts elsewhere in the state.
DeSantis told reporters that “our Department of Emergency Management continues to implement contingency plans for potential tropical weather impacts, including identifying alternate work facilities.”