SURFSIDE, FLORIDA (REUTERS) – President Joe Biden on Thursday (July 1) pledged federal assistance and offered comfort to the families of those killed and missing in last week’s Florida condominium collapse, as the search-and-rescue operation was temporarily suspended due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure.
Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has marked his political career, travelled to Florida to reprise the role of “consoler-in-chief” a week after the 12-storey Champlain Towers South partially caved in as residents slept.
The confirmed death toll remained at 18, after the discovery of six more bodies in the ruins of the condo, including two children, aged four and 10. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble, with hopes of finding any survivors dimming with each passing day.
After arriving in Miami, Biden attended a briefing with local officials, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
Biden, a Democrat, told them he would deliver “whatever you need” and said he expected the federal government would cover the full costs for the county and state.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This is life or death.”
Following the briefing, Biden met with firefighters and other first responders who have been searching for victims at the site.
“I just wanted to say: thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Biden, who also appeared to refer to the people who rescued his two sons from a car crash that killed his first wife and infant daughter in 1972.
Biden later met in private with some families of the victims at the St Regis hotel, not far from the collapsed condo, where he made brief remarks before speaking with each family individually, according to a senior White House official.
DeSantis and other officials joined him.
Rescue effort paused
Rescue workers at the site were instructed to stop just after 2am on Thursday, when movement in the debris raised concerns that the part of the building still standing could collapse, officials said.
“The search-and-rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news briefing.
Officials said they were unsure when that would happen.
Authorities said they have not given up on locating survivors. But nobody has been pulled alive from the wreckage since the early hours of the disaster in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.
Miami-Dade County fire chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers did hear signs of life during their initial efforts last week.
“They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard for several hours,” he said. “Eventually, we didn’t hear her voice anymore.”
Officials are also keeping a watchful eye on Tropical Storm Elsa, which formed over the Atlantic and could reach south Florida by Monday, potentially hampering search operations.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dispatched five urban search-and-rescue teams – each comprised of 80 members – to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.
DeSantis said workers have removed some 1,400 tonnes of material from the collapse site.
Biden had delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts.
Thursday’s trip is Biden’s second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president in January. In February, he travelled to Texas after a winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.
Investigators have not determined what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old condo complex to crumble in one of the deadliest building collapses in US history.
But a 2018 report prepared by engineering firm Morabito Consultants ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies in the 136-unit complex that are now the focus of inquiries.
The Washington Post reported late on Wednesday that the majority of the board of the Surfside condominium, including its president, resigned in 2019, partly in frustration over what was seen as the sluggish response to the report.