Biden in Florida to see condo collapse site, death toll at 18

President Joe Biden flew to Florida on Thursday to “comfort” families of people killed or still missing in the rubble of a beachfront apartment building, where hopes of finding survivors had all but evaporated.

Biden and First Lady Jill Biden left the White House early for the flight to Miami, and then traveled by motorcade to nearby Surfside, where the death toll in the tragedy now stands at 18, and more than 140 still unaccounted for.

Aboard Air Force One, deputy spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the first couple would convey empathy to heartbroken families and thanks to the emergency crews sifting through the wreckage.

“The president and the first lady will meet with the families who have been forced to endure this terrible tragedy, offer them comfort during this unimaginable, difficult time,” she told reporters.

Asked about dwindling chances of anyone being found alive, Jean-Pierre said the White House was “hoping for the best.”

“This is a rescue operation,” she said. “We haven’t got any indication of it not being exactly that — search and rescue, looking for loved ones.”

The dead confirmed so far include two children, aged four and 10, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said late Wednesday.

On Thursday, Levine Cava said the search and rescue operation had been temporarily halted due to “structural concerns” about the pile of debris.

– Three hours with families –

Biden’s schedule in Surfside remains fluid, with the White House keen to avoid disrupting the disaster site with the vast presidential entourage.

Levine Cava said the pause in the search operations had nothing to do with Biden’s visit.

However, he is set to spend as much as three hours with families, as well as meet first responders. 

He was also scheduled to receive a briefing from Levine Cava and other state and local officials.

With Florida a crucial state on the US election map, there is considerable focus on interactions during the visit between Biden and state Governor Ron DeSantis — a rising Republican star who has been touted as a possible 2024 presidential candidate.

In another political twist to the aftermath of the catastrophic accident, former president Donald Trump was planning a rally in Sarasota, Florida, on Saturday.

DeSantis has joined calls for postponing the event, which is part of Trump’s attempt to remain the dominant force in Republican politics.

Asked about Trump’s attention-grabbing moves, Jean-Pierre said the White House was “not focused on the former president at all.”

– ‘Low’ chance of survival –

The cave-in of the 12-story Champlain Towers South building has sparked a search-and-rescue effort involving engineers and specialists from across the United States and as far afield as Mexico and Israel.

Elad Edri, deputy commander of an Israeli search and rescue team, said rescuers had completed a map outlining the bedrooms and other living spaces in the building where residents could have been trapped.

Rescuers made it to an underground parking structure where it had been hoped they might discover people who had been trapped in cars, but found no one, Edri said.

“It’s been more than six days from the collapsing,” he cautioned, deeming the chances of finding any survivors “low.”

– ‘Earthquake’ –

Residents in the part of Champlain Towers South that remained intact reported being awakened around 1:30 am (0530 GMT) Thursday by what sounded like cracks of thunder that shook their rooms.

“It was like an earthquake,” Janette Aguero, who escaped from the tower’s 11th floor with her family, told AFP.

Rescuers who arrived in the moments after the tower came down helped evacuate dozens of residents, and pulled one teenage boy alive from the rubble. 

Since then, no other survivors have been found, despite deployment of sniffer dogs and cranes for lifting debris.

Experts are looking at possible pre-existing critical flaws in the structure of the apartment tower. 

An October 2018 report released by city officials revealed fears of “major structural damage” in the complex, from the concrete slab under the pool deck to the columns and beams in the parking garage. 

In a letter to residents in April, Jean Wodnicki, the chair of the condo association, described “accelerating” damage to the building since then.

Repairs had been set to begin soon in the 40-year-old building.

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