The devastating structural failure, which so far has resulted in 18 confirmed deaths with another 145 people still unaccounted for, could become the deadliest non-intentional building collapse in American history. It has raised new questions about the safety of high-rises that run for miles along the South Florida coast, along with similar developments across the nation.
Biden, who will be joined by first lady Jill Biden in Florida, is awaiting findings from a team of six federal scientists and engineers collecting information on the ground. He hopes to use results from their investigation to determine how infrastructure like residential towers can be better fortified against catastrophic failure, according to officials.
But before then, there are grieving families to comfort and exhausted rescue personnel to thank — a presidential responsibility Biden takes as seriously as any.
“There’s nothing worse than having to wait and wonder what happened,” Biden said last week. “It’s a tough, tough time. There’s so many people waiting. ‘Are they alive? Will they be — what will happen?’ And so our heart goes out to them.”
The White House was still finalizing details of Biden’s visit on Wednesday but said he would meet with first responders and search-and-rescue teams to thank them, along with families awaiting word of their loved ones. His schedule has more than three hours blocked off to meet with the dozens of families affected by the tragedy. He plans to deliver remarks from the St. Regis hotel afterward.
He will meet with Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a chief acolyte of former President Donald Trump who is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2024, during a midday briefing alongside other officials in Surfside, near where the collapse occurred.
The two men have mostly sought to put aside politics in the wake of the disaster — though Biden raised eyebrows last week when he told reporters he was “waiting on a call from him if he needs the help.”
They eventually connected in a phone call that one official described as professional and focused on providing Florida the help it needed. Biden signed an emergency declaration that freed up federal resources and Federal Emergency Management Agency search-and-rescue teams. And DeSantis has appeared alongside Democrats throughout this week during news conferences near the site of the collapse.
“They’re all in,” DeSantis said of Biden’s administration during a news conference last Friday. “And so we really appreciate having the support of the President.”
While politics inevitably seep into disaster relief, Biden has emphasized the need for bipartisanship to get things done. While aides began planning for a visit to Florida shortly after the gravity of the disaster became clear, the President issued specific and firm instructions that no visit take place if it meant diverting a single firefighter or law enforcement officer from the search-and-rescue efforts, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Throughout the weekend and early this week, officials were in talks with authorities on the ground to ensure the efforts at the condo site were not affected by the requirements of a presidential visit, which typically include a large contingent of state and local police.
White House officials said they hoped to keep Thursday’s visit as apolitical as possible, instead underscoring Biden’s unique capacity for conveying compassion in dark moments.
The President has long drawn upon wells of his own private grief to help comfort individuals facing loss. Aides have maintained a file folder of dozens of eulogies he has delivered over the years, along with quotes on loss and grief that can be incorporated into speeches or talking points.
In Florida, he’ll assume a role that presidents have long taken on, with differing levels of aptitude, after natural disasters or man-made catastrophes throw communities into grief.
The collapse of Champlain Towers South doesn’t fall neatly into either of those categories, neither natural nor criminal, though residents of the building have already begun to lay blame on poor maintenance and neglect. And while hope for finding survivors dims by the day, it is still too early for Biden to officially mourn all of those who have been lost.
But in traveling to Surfside, Biden hopes to convey solidarity and resolve even as much about the disaster remains unknown.
It won’t be the first time as president that he assumes the role of consoler-in-chief. He has sought to correct what he said was a glossing over by his predecessor of the hundreds of thousands who have died from Covid-19, including during a somber White House ceremony when the death toll reached 500,000.
“I know all too well that black hole in your chest. You feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse. The anger. The questions of faith in your soul,” Biden said before observing a moment of silence in front of a candlelit South Portico.
He was speaking from experience. From the day in 1972 when he was sworn in as US senator at his sons’ hospital bedside following a car crash that had killed his wife and daughter, Biden’s political and personal lives have been defined by grief.
When one of those sons, Beau, died of a brain tumor in 2015, grief again came to color Biden’s public persona. He wrestled with it publicly, including as he weighed a presidential run.
Throughout his career, he has sought to convey lessons he learned from his own coping process, including a well-worn mantra that a day will come when the thought of a loved one “brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”