U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden are visiting Surfside, Florida, Thursday where search and rescue operations were paused overnight at the site of a partially collapsed condominium building.
The couple arrived at nearby Miami International Airport aboard Air Force One after leaving the White House early Thursday.
At a news conference on Thursday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava explained the decision to halt search and rescue efforts.
“We were forced to halt operations on the collapse in the early hours of the morning due to structural concerns about the standing structure. We’re doing everything that we can to ensure the safety of our first responders is paramount and to continue our search and rescue operations as soon as it is safe to do so,” Levine Cava said.
Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky highlighted the dangerous nature of the day-and-night effort to try to find someone who may still be alive underneath the rubble and explained the need to suspend search and rescue efforts.
“On the south side of the structure, near the north and south corners of the building, it could cause additional failure to the building,” he said at the Thursday news conference.
145 people still missing
Cominsky said Wednesday teams were using search dogs, video and sonar, and in particular are looking for signs of voids within the rubble where a person might be found.
As Biden sat with officials for a briefing, the Democratic president reached to his right and briefly touched the hand of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis -- a Republican -- and said, “It’s real important, I’m talking to everybody here now, to come together. This is life and death.”
DeSantis responded, saying, “Thank you, Mr. President. And you recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one and you’ve been very supportive.”
At a separate event in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Thursday, DeSantis sidestepped a reporter’s question on whether he thought Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Courts across the country have rejected Republican allegations that Biden’s win was the result of fraud.
Local officials said late Wednesday the number of dead from the collapse had risen to 18, including two children. Levine Cava announced the latest toll in a series of tweets late Wednesday, including that 145 people remained unaccounted for.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president and first lady would be meeting with family members “who have been forced to endure this terrible tragedy,” as well as thanking first responders and rescue teams.
When asked if the Bidens would go to the building site itself, Psaki said those details were not yet decided, but that the president had stressed that every part of his visit needs to be coordinated with officials on the ground.
“There is still an ongoing search and rescue effort on the ground, and we want to ensure we're not doing anything to pull away from those resources,” she told reporters at a Wednesday briefing.
Florida emergency response officials said they are monitoring the potential development of tropical cyclones that could threaten the area by early next week and are preparing to be able to continue work at the collapse site and to fulfill emergency response efforts elsewhere in the state.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters Thursday that “our department of emergency management continues to implement contingency plans for potential tropical weather impacts, including identifying alternate work facilities. On Wednesday, he said the ongoing search and rescue operation was the largest non-hurricane response in the state’s history.
About half of the 12-story, 136-unit Champlain Towers South collapsed June 24. An investigation is underway to determine the cause.
A 2018 engineering report noted “major structural damage” to a concrete slab beneath the building’s ground-floor pool and “abundant cracking” in the concrete structure of the parking garage.
Bids for millions of dollars in repair work were still pending when the building collapsed.