BAL HARBOUR, Fla. – A week after the tragic collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building, President Joe Biden visited South Florida, where he cried with Surfside families, thanked first responders and pledged financial assistance to the rescue and recovery efforts.
He finished his day with an unannounced visit to the “Wall of Hope and Memorial” set up near the condo site, where he read posted messages and First Lady Jill Biden brought flowers.
“I think I have the power — and we’ll know shortly — to be able to pick up 100 percent of the cost for the county and the state for 30 days,” Biden said at a command briefing Thursday morning, flanked by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “I think I’m quite sure I can do that.”
Levine Cava and DeSantis thanked Biden for the support, with the Republican governor telling the Democratic president: “You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one and you’ve been very supportive.”
Biden praised the bipartisan collaboration over the past week. “We live in a nation where we can cooperate,” he said. “It’s really important.”
WATCH A REPLAY OF BIDEN IN THE MORNING BRIEFING:
As he stressed his point, Biden touched the left arm of DeSantis, a rumored 2024 presidential candidate.
Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio were across the table from them, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was also among the group at the briefing at The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Biden said to the assembled state and local leaders. “Tell me what you need.”
Just before noon, Biden met with a group of about 50 uniformed first responders.
“What you’re doing now is just hard as hell to deal with, even psychologically, to deal with,” he told them. “And I just wanted to say thank you.”
“Until we need you, no one fully appreciates what you do,” Biden added. “But I promise you — we know. We know. What you’re doing here is incredible, having to deal with the uncertainty, and worrying about the families.”
WATCH A REPLAY OF BIDEN’S MEETING WITH FIRST RESPONDERS:
Biden then spent nearly three hours meeting with families impacted by the condo collapse.
Those meetings were closed to the press, but people in the room said Biden first made brief remarks before going table to table to have smaller conversations with groups of relatives.
He didn’t leave until everyone who wanted to speak with him had the opportunity.
There were believed to be about 200 people in the room.
“The people you may have lost — they’re gonna be with you your whole life,” Biden told families that lost a loved one. “A part of your soul, a part of who you are.”
Biden made brief remarks from the St. Regis and then visited the memorial site before leaving to head back to Washington.
He said families he spoke with “are realistic” about the chances of their relatives being found alive.
“They know that the chances as the days go by diminish slightly,” Biden said.
“It’s bad enough to lose somebody. But the hard part, the really hard part is to not know if somebody survived,” he said, choking up as he recalled the accident where he lost his first wife and daughter and didn’t know if his sons would survive.
WATCH A REPLAY OF BIDEN’S AFTERNOON REMARKS:
Air Force One touched down at Miami International Airport just before 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Aside from the previously unannounced visit to the memorial site, Biden’s day was spent entirely in the St. Regis hotel about a mile north of the Champlain Towers South.
The White House and local leaders had said that the presidential visit would not detract resources from the search and rescue efforts at the collapse site.
But one family missing relatives in the rubble told Local 10 News that they wish the president wasn’t coming.
Rescue efforts did need to pause for several hours Thursday due to safety concerns relating to the part of the tower that is still standing.
Early Thursday, the White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed 60 staff and an additional 400 personnel across five search and rescue teams at the request of local officials.
FEMA also awarded $20 million to the state’s Division of Emergency Management to help deal with unexpected emergency measures surrounding the collapse.
Biden has supported an investigation into the cause of the collapse. On Wednesday the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which sent a team of scientists and engineers to the site, launched a full technical investigation.