Biden to meet with Surfside families as rescue efforts enter eighth day
President Biden will travel to the disaster-stricken community of Surfside, Fla., on Thursday to meet with families impacted by the devastating partial collapse of a condo building that has left at least 18 people dead and scores missing.
Biden arrives in the town, which neighbors Miami, one week after the collapse of a section of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story building. The federal government has been assisting search and recovery efforts since late last week after Biden declared a state of emergency in Florida.
The president and first lady Jill Biden will meet with first responders and rescue teams working on the ground and will spend time with families affected by the collapse to ensure they have the federal support they need.
The visit also poses an unusual political test for Biden and Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who could ultimately face off for the White House in 2024. The two are scheduled to meet in Surfside.
“As anybody who has been through disasters knows, there is a line of jurisdiction and authority between the federal government and the affected state or states. The president will not want to be seen as either barging in or holding back,” said William Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program and former deputy assistant to President Clinton for domestic policy.
“The fact that the governor of the affected state may very well turn out to be the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is just a fact and it’s not a simplifying fact, it’s a complicating fact,” Galston said. “But I think there are incentives on both sides for the president of the United States and the governor of Florida to be seen as setting aside current and future political differences and doing what is right for the people who have been so affected by this.”
Biden’s unique brand of empathy will be on display in Florida as he speaks to families, offers them comfort, and joins them in waiting for news about their loved ones. Biden has earned a reputation for having a unique ability to connect with those who have experienced loss because of his own history of losing his first wife, baby daughter, and later his son, Beau.
“Comforter-in-chief is one of the most important jobs for any president. When there’s a tragedy, people look to leaders to help heal a community and the tragedy at the condo building is no different than a tornado or natural disaster where people are hurting,” said Alex Conant, who served as a spokesman in former President George W. Bush’s White House.
“I think Biden is unique in his ability to grieve with people since he’s had so much grief in his own life, so it’s a role that seems to come naturally to him,” Conant said.
Thursday won’t be the first time that Biden has visited an area of the country beset by tragedy since taking office. He traveled to Texas earlier this year following a deadly spate of winter weather in the south and adjusted a trip to Atlanta, Ga., after a gunman killed eight people in a shooting rampage targeting massage parlors in the area.
As crews move the rubble on the ground in Surfside, as many as 147 people remain missing. Officials announced Wednesday they had recovered the bodies of two children, raising the death toll to 18. Families have been visiting the collapse site to oversee the rescue efforts, which are entering their eighth day on Thursday.
Local officials said Wednesday that they are preparing for the possibility that extreme weather could hit Florida while search and rescue operations continue. Miami-Dade Police Department Director Alfredo Ramirez III welcomed Biden’s decision to visit the area, saying his presence could be a source of unity and that it would not disrupt ongoing search and rescue operations.
“We are very grateful that the president is coming. He has been showing support for this community since the beginning and we assure you that we have plans in place with the Secret Service and our federal partners that this operation will continue,” Ramirez told reporters at a news conference.
Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson (D) also commended Biden for visiting the community and said she believes he is “doing everything in his power to address this crisis.”
“It is extremely difficult to imagine the fear and heartache that the families of the Surfside building collapse building victims must be experiencing. They deserve all of the support that we can give them, so I applaud President Biden for making time to meet with them and the heroic rescue team members,” Wilson said in a statement. “The president and First Lady Jill Biden are the two best people to offer comfort right now.”
Federal officials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced Wednesday that they are launching a “full technical investigation” into the building collapse that could be a years-long process, and local officials are also probing the situation.
Biden has said the federal government will provide all the resources necessitated by the crisis and White House press secretary Jen Psaki made clear earlier this week that Biden supported an investigation into the circumstances of the building collapse.
Still, Biden is expected to walk a careful line in his approach to the situation to avoid looking like he is overreaching or politicizing a tragedy. While he could urge states to revisit building codes or take other steps to ensure safety of buildings like the one that collapsed, for example, the authority to do so ultimately falls to state and local jurisdictions.
“Not everyone is good at this. It’s very difficult and it’s very easy to see these things as political,” said Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Princeton University, who described Biden as in his “comfort zone” when engaging with people impacted by disaster. “Part of it is not just saying the right thing and having the right response but it’s to do it in a way that really seems genuine.”
Besides DeSantis, Biden is expected to meet with at least one other Republican official, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who also chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, while in Surfside, according to his office. Biden spoke with DeSantis by phone last week, their first time speaking by phone since Biden entered the White House, and administration officials have been in touch with the governor’s team in the wake of the building collapse.
The president and first lady are scheduled to receive a briefing from DeSantis, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D), local leaders and first responders.
DeSantis is viewed as a likely contender for the 2024 Republican nomination, though whether he runs for president is largely dependent on the political future of former President Trump, who has teased a potential 2024 run and recently returned to the rally stage. Trump, who won the state of Florida, offered “thoughts and prayers” for those affected by the building collapse last week but has recently trained his attention on the situation at the southern border, where he went Wednesday to attack Biden’s immigration policies.
Conant, who also served as communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, said that Biden and DeSantis will likely try to show a united front in the face of tragedy but may size each other up behind the scenes ahead of a potential 2024 matchup.
“[Biden] is going deep into Trumpland which would normally be very delicate. I think given the circumstances, people will put partisanship aside and that creates interesting opportunities for bipartisanship for both the governor and the president,” Conant said.