(CN) — President Joe Biden flew to Florida on Thursday to meet with first responders and the families of those trapped in the rubble of the Surfside condominium collapse, as he tackles the first national disaster of his young presidency.
“Our message today is that we are here for you as one nation,” Biden said from the St. Regis Hotel in Miami.
Biden’s visit – his first to Florida since becoming president -- comes as 145 people remain unaccounted for a week after the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium mysteriously collapsed. Search-and-rescue teams have already pulled 18 bodies from the wreckage, including two children on Wednesday. The children, 4 and 10 years old, were sisters.
Workers have not found anyone alive in the rubble since the first day of the collapse, when two people, including a teenage boy, were rescued from the rubble.
Biden did not visit the site of the collapse. Rescue teams stopped recovery efforts early Thursday morning over concerns the rest of the building could fall.
At an earlier press conference on Thursday, Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said a large column showed movement overnight. If that piece of debris fell, he warned, it could further damage other support structures. Workers also observed widening cracks in the partially collapsed building and movement in concrete floor slabs.
Cominsky stressed rescue efforts will continue as soon as they “develop options.”
Joining the fire chief, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Biden’s visit will have “no impact” on rescue operations, which will continue “when it is safe to do so.”
Constant rain and lightning in South Florida have hampered rescue efforts and the forecast does not look better in the days ahead. Newly formed Tropical Storm Elsa, currently moving toward the state, could further complicate efforts next week.
Shifting debris piles and smoldering fires underneath have also posed a unique and dangerous challenge for rescue efforts. Crews have already removed more than 1,400 tons of debris from the site.
The lack of rescues since the first day of the collapse have dampened hopes of finding survivors in the rubble.
In his remarks, Biden spoke to that prospect.
“The families are very realistic,” he said. “They know the longer it goes … they know the chances [of survival] as each day passes are diminished slightly. But at a minimum, they want to recover the bodies.”
The president said the federal government is prepared to “pick up 100% of the cost” of rescue efforts and clean up for the next 30 days. He also said condo residents' family members living outside the country will receive expedited visas.
Biden already approved an emergency declaration last week to provide assistance to state and local offices. Hundreds of personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are on site to help with rescue efforts and set up temporary housing.
The president called for a complete investigation into the building’s collapse.
“Because we’re committed not only to recover, but to restore the safety across the board,” he said.
On Wednesday, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the same Commerce Department agency that investigated the fall of the Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, opened a federal investigation into the cause of the collapse.
While investigators have not determined what triggered the collapse, evidence has slowly come to light documenting the 40-year-old building’s myriad of problems.
The town of Surfside released several public records on Sunday, including a 2018 structural field survey report stating defective waterproofing on the pool deck was causing “major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas.” The report also detailed extensive cracking of concrete columns and beams.
“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the report prepared by Morabito Consultants states.
In April, the board president of the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association sent a letter to residents stressing the problems had “gotten significantly worse.”
“When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface,” Jean Wodnicki wrote in the letter.
The board was in the process of recertifying the building, a requirement in Miami-Dade County for structures nearing 40 years old. The board already approved $15.5 million in assessments this spring to make the needed repairs, but bids had not yet come back when the building partially collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24.
Last week, condo resident Michael Drezner filed a lawsuit against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, accusing the board of not timely making needed repairs or warning residents about the dangers of delaying restorations. The complaint seeks class action status and at least $5 million in damages. A handful of other lawsuits have followed in recent days.
Before his remarks in Miami, Biden met with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Republican Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio to coordinate the federal response to the tragedy.
During that meeting, DeSantis, a Republican who is rumored to run for president in 2024, praised Biden.
“You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one and you’ve been very supportive,” the governor said during a rare display of bipartisanship.
“You guys have not only been supportive at the federal level, but we’ve had no bureaucracy,” he added.
Biden also met with first responders in a hotel near Surfside and shared some of the tragedies that have befallen his life over the years, including the car crash that killed his first wife and daughter and a house fire.
“Until we need you, no one fully appreciates what you do,” Biden said. “But I promise you -- we know. We know.”
“I just want you to know that we understand,” he added. “What you’re doing now is just hard as hell to deal with, even psychologically. I just wanted to say thank you, thank you, thank you."
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Cominsky, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue chief, recounted how rescuers heard a woman’s voice in the early hours after the collapse.
“They were searching for a female voice, that’s what we heard for several hours, but we eventually did not hear her voice anymore, but we continued searching,” Cominsky said. “Unfortunately, we did not have success with that.”
“That emphasizes the magnitude of what we are going through,” he added.
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