US President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, travelled to Surfside, Florida, on Thursday, site of a deadly condominium collapse, to offer condolences to the families of victims and meet with local officials as the casualty toll climbed higher.
Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has been a hallmark of his political career, reprised the role of “consoler-in-chief” as rescue teams resumed the search for possible survivors 15 hours after suspending work for fear of further collapse of the high-rise.
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“The families are realistic. They know, the longer it goes,” Biden said after he and the first lady met privately with families of the victims for about three and half hours.
“Jill and I wanted them to know that we are with them and the country is with them,” said the president who directed federal officials to do whatever was necessary to help the search and recovery operation at the site of the collapse.
“One of the things that the local FEMA personnel as well as the local first responders did is, they took all of the families to the site to see what it looked like up close,” Biden said.
“They see those floors, literally feet, cement upon cement upon cement,” he said of the building which caved in a week ago as residents slept.
The confirmed death toll rose to 18 on Wednesday with the discovery of six more bodies in the ruins of the Champlain Towers South condo, including the remains of two children, aged 4 and 10. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble.
Nobody has been pulled alive from the mounds of pulverised concrete, splintered lumber and twisted metal since the early hours of the disaster in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.
Authorities have held out hope that more survivors might be found, but prospects of further rescues have grown dimmer by the hour.
Biden said the US State Department was expediting travel visas for family members from South America, Europe and Israel.
Earlier in the day, Biden met at a hotel conference center near the site of the collapsed building on Thursday with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava along with several US legislators representing Florida and a dozen emergency response officials.
“I think I have the power … to pick up 100 percent of the cost,” Biden said, speaking of the federal emergency funds, according to a White House media pool report.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said, urging local officials to “tell me what you need”.
Cava thanked Biden for coming and for the swift federal response, calling it “an incredible collaboration”. She called the collapse “unprecedented” and said the investigation would aim to make sure such a tragedy “never happens again”.
Thursday’s trip marks the second time since Biden became president that he has paid a visit to the scene of a disaster.
In February, Biden had travelled to Texas after a powerful winter storm caused serious damage to homes and businesses, left millions without power or clean water for days and killed at least 24.
Biden, who delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts, has issued an emergency declaration and given state and local officials federal assistance to help respond to the collapse.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and US Army Corps of Engineers have deployed teams to assist with search-and-rescue, incident management and debris removal.
FEMA also has coordinated with state and local officials to open a family assistance centre and provide communications support and now has 500 workers on the ground in Miami-Dade.
Biden, a Democrat, appeared beside Republican DeSantis who is seen as a potential top-tier candidate to challenge Biden’s re-election in three years. DeSantis has risen to power in Florida politics and built a brand as a sharp partisan, often challenging Biden on issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and immigration.
DeSantis praised Biden in the meeting. “You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one and you’ve been very supportive,” DeSantis said.
Biden also met with first responders and search-and-rescue team members to express thanks and appreciation.
“Until we need you, no one fully appreciates what you do. But I promise you — we know. We know. What you’re doing here is incredible, having to deal with the uncertainty, and worrying about the families,” Biden told them.
Biden’s gift for connecting his own hardships with the grief and anguish of others has become a defining feature of his persona. He talked about enduring the deaths of his first wife, a daughter and a son during his years in public life.
Investigators have not concluded 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 the engineering firm Morabito Consultants ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies in the 12-floor, 136-unit complex that are now the focus of inquiries.