WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden, reprising his role as comforter-in-chief, highlighted Thursday the “life and death” situation that has brought together all levels of the government as he visits a south Florida community reeling from the collapse of a 12-story condo building that left 18 people dead and dozens missing.
A week after disaster in Surfside, Florida, Biden is meeting with local and state officials at the St. Regis Bal Harbour hotel in Miami Beach. He also met with first responders and families of those missing loved ones.
“We’ve come together,” Biden said, as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis sat to the right of the president, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava sat to the left. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott sat across from the president. “This is life and death.”
In remarks ahead of a roundtable with officials, Cava said the collaboration among local, state and federal government is bringing hope to the community.
“This is an unprecedented, devastating disaster unlike anyone has ever seen,” Cava said. “It’s shocked the world, and the fact that we’ve all come together is what gives us hope, is what gives us strength and inspiration.”
DeSantis in his remarks noted that there has been “no bureaucracy,” when working with the federal government, saying “we’re literally getting requests routed from local to state to federal in no time and the approvals happening.”
“There will be no bureaucracy,” Biden responded.
Biden’s briefing came after Cava announced in a press conference Thursday morning that search-and rescue operations have been halted due to structural concerns with the building.
Biden, with the first lady by his side, met with roughly 50 first responders in a ballroom at the St. Regis following the roundtable meeting.
“I just wanted to come down and say thanks,” Biden told the first responders. “What you’re doing now is just hard as hell to deal with, even psychologically, to deal with. And I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
He went on to shake hands with the battalion chief leading the response, which was met with applause.
Biden also met with family members of those who lived in the condo for the next couple of hours. That meeting was closed to the press. During his meeting with families whose loved ones have died or are still missing, Biden gave brief remarks, followed by other local and state officials, including DeSantis and Cava, according to the pool report. Biden stayed in the meeting until everyone had a chance to speak with him.
DeSantis and Biden put politics aside
With his palm laid over DeSantis’ hands, Biden praised the bipartisanship of the federal, state and local governments throughout the tragedy.
“You know what’s good about this?” Biden said. “It lets the nation know we can cooperate. That’s really important.”
DeSantis, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, thanked Biden for recognizing “the severity of this tragedy from day one.”
“You’ve been very supportive,” DeSantis told the president.
Cava, the Democratic Mayor, also highlighted DeSantis’ presence following the collapse, saying “you personally have been amazing.”
“You’ve been a steady calming reassuring but forceful voice every step of the way and it’s been a pleasure to partner with you,” Cava told DeSantis.
Biden during his remarks also promised more federal help, saying that he believes the federal government has the power to cover 100% of the costs to the county and state for the first 30 days of the building collapse search and rescue operation.
‘Getting to the bottom of it’
Psaki said Monday the president believes the collapse must be investigated.
“Certainly we want to play any constructive role we can play with federal resources in getting to the bottom of it and preventing it from happening in the future,” she said.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology sent a team of scientists and engineers to gather information that will be used to determine if a full investigation will be conducted, Psaki said Tuesday.
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More than 50 federal personnel are on the ground, including building science experts, structural engineers and geotechnical experts, according to Psaki.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology announced Wednesday evening that there will be a full investigation into the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South building, Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday.
When asked whether there are executive actions the White House can take to address the collapse while they await the results of the investigation, Jean-Pierre said that results of the investigation will “steer us and give us a sense of what could be next that we can do to prevent this from happening.”
Although Biden has been promoting a $973 billion bipartisan infrastructure package, it will likely not be brought up during Biden’s visit to Surfside. The president will likely avoid making the event political as he focuses on the grief of the family.
“It would be inappropriate to use this as an example of why the infrastructure bill needs to pass,” Perry said. “You don’t go to the memorial service where people have lost their loved ones and make a political pitch that that’s just not appropriate.”
Biden’s personal tragedies
Throughout the campaign trail and into his presidency, Biden has often shared his personal tragedies with America, which is in a pandemic that has left more than 600,000 dead. In 1972, Neilia Hunter Biden, Biden’s wife, and 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. Beau, Biden’s oldest son, died of brain cancer in 2015.
Biden has often used his story to empathize with those who have lost friends and family members throughout the pandemic. In April, the president visited Atlanta just days after a shooting rampage left eight dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent. While Biden at the time used the moment to condemn racism against Asian Americans, which has been on the rise amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he also gave advice to families who were grieving.
“The day will come when their memory brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye, as unbelievable as that is now,” he said in Atlanta in April. “It will take a while, but I promise you it will come, and when it does, that’s the day you know you’re going to make it.”
Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said that presidents visiting the site of a tragedy often feels like a “member of our family” who is “coming to us to help us grieve and to give us comfort.”
Perry noted that Biden’s own biography has shown Americans that “there is empathy in him because of what he suffered.”
The Biden administration has sent resources to the state following the deadly collapse.
Last week, Biden declared a federal emergency in Florida that authorized federal assistance to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida condo collapse: Biden meets with Surfside responders, families