(C) Reuters. Emergency workers conduct search and rescue efforts at the site of a partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
By Katanga Johnson and Steve Holland
SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, were headed on Thursday to Surfside, Florida, site of the deadly condominium collapse, to offer condolences to families of those killed and missing as the casualty toll climbed.
Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has been a hallmark of his political career, will reprise the role of “consoler-in-chief” while rescue teams search for victims in the rubble of the high-rise, which partially 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, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble.
Authorities have held out hope that more survivors might be found, but prospects have grown dimmer by the hour. 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, despite an around-the-clock search effort.
Among those traveling with Biden on Thursday were U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the collapse site, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, and Liz Sherwood-Randall, White House homeland security adviser.
Biden, who took off from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland around 7:30 a.m., had delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts. He has issued an emergency declaration and provided state and local officials with federal assistance.
FEMA, which has already deployed more than 60 staff to Florida, has activated five urban search-and-rescue teams to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Thursday’s trip is Biden’s second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president.
In February, he traveled to Texas after a powerful winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.
Biden, a Democrat, will attend a briefing first with Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, seen as a potential top-tier candidate to challenge Biden’s reelection in three years. During his rise in Florida politics, DeSantis has built a brand as a sharp-elbowed partisan warrior, often challenging Biden on issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and immigration.
After getting briefed, Biden plans to thank first responders and rescue crews before meeting with victims’ families to offer comfort. He is scheduled to deliver remarks on the tragedy shortly before 4 p.m. in Miami.
Biden’s gift for connecting his own hardships with the grief and anguish of others has become a defining feature of his persona, having endured 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 U.S. history.
But a 2018 report prepared by 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.
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.
Biden to comfort families in Florida after condo collapse