By Katanga Johnson and Steve Holland
SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) – President Joe Biden visited Florida on Thursday to comfort the families of those killed and missing in last week’s condominium collapse, as the search-and-rescue operation was temporarily suspended due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure.
Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has marked his political career, was set to reprise the role of “consoler-in-chief” a week after the 12-story building partially caved in as residents slept.
The confirmed death toll remained at 18, after the discovery of six more bodies in the ruins of the Champlain Towers South condo, including two children, aged 4 and 10. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble, with hopes of finding any survivors dimming with each passing day.
After arriving in Miami, Biden attended a briefing with local officials, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
Biden told them he would deliver “whatever you need” and said he expected the federal government would cover the full costs for the county and state.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This is life or death.”
Workers at the site were instructed to stop just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, when movement in the debris raised concerns that the part of the building still standing could collapse, officials said.
“The search-and-rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news briefing. Officials said they were unsure when that would happen.
Authorities said they have not given up on locating survivors. But 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.
Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers did hear signs of life during their initial efforts last week.
“They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard for several hours,” he said. “Eventually, we didn’t hear her voice anymore.”
Officials are also keeping a watchful eye on Tropical Storm Elsa, which formed over the Atlantic and could reach south Florida by Monday, potentially hampering search operations.
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 had delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts.
FEMA has dispatched five urban search-and-rescue teams – each comprised of 80 members – to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.
DeSantis said workers have removed some 1,400 tons of material from the collapse site.
Thursday’s trip is Biden’s second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president in January.
In February, he traveled to Texas after a winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.
After his briefing, the president planned to thank first responders and rescue crews before meeting with victims’ families. He is scheduled to deliver remarks shortly before 4 p.m. in Miami.
Biden’s ability to connect his own hardships with the grief and anguish of others has become a defining feature of his public life, having endured the deaths of his first wife, a daughter and a son.
Investigators have not determined 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 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.
(Reporting By Katanga Johnson in Surfside and Steve Holland in Bal Harbor; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Francisco Alvarado, Brendan O’Brien, Peter Szekely, Kanishka Singh and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Giles Elgood, Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall)