SURFSIDE, Fla. — President Biden on Thursday offered impassioned remarks in a hotel ballroom filled with the families of some of those who died or remain missing under the rubble of a collapsed condominium building, according to White House officials and those in the room.
A video of Mr. Biden posted during the event by one of the family members appeared to show the president talking in somber tones about the grief he felt from the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident that also severely injured his two young boys.
“The waiting, the waiting, is unbearable,” he told the families, many of whom have been waiting for more than a week for word about whether anyone might still be alive under the concrete and steel.
A White House official said that Mr. Biden made brief remarks to the families from the center of the ballroom before walking from table to table to talk with each family seated in the room. The official said that Jill Biden, the first lady, also held individual conversations with family members.
The president was joined by Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Rick Scott, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami Dade County.
The official said that Mr. Biden stayed in the room until everyone who wanted to talk with him had the opportunity.
The president is scheduled to speak to reporters later this afternoon about the disaster and his effort to console the families — a grim part of any president’s job.
Erick de Moura, a resident of the building who spent the night of the collapse at his girlfriend’s house, praised Mr. Biden as he and other survivors and victims’ families left the ballroom at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort.
“For him to take his time like he’s taking right now just walking around and talking to every single family, it’s just an amazing act and we appreciate it very much. It’s comforting for us,” Mr. de Moura said.
Mr. Biden’s meeting with the families came as local officials announced a halt in the search for survivors amid concerns about the stability of the pile of rubble and the part of the building that remains standing.
As of Thursday morning, the cranes used to help dig through the rubble were immobile, poised off the ground but inactive. Pallets of water and Gatorade lined nearby parking lots, as police officers and emergency medical workers sweltered in the Florida heat, waiting for Mr. Biden’s arrival.
One woman painstakingly removed flowers, wilted with age and rainwater, from the fence, tucking a fresh white rose in place next to laminated black-and-white photos of the missing and the deceased. Wendy Marra, 38, who has lived in the area for nearly two decades, wiped away tears as she tacked a piece of artwork — a collage from her son, meant to represent the sun, sky and grass — to the fence.
“The whole world is here,” she said, as she sat on the grass nearby, reflecting on the people she would see on food delivery runs or on beach walks and the building she used to stare at through her bedroom window.
“Biden just wants to show his respect — it means a lot that everybody is coming together,” she said.
Crews halted their search for survivors of the Champlain Towers South collapse early Thursday morning out of concern that the rest of the building could also fall, a setback to an increasingly desperate rescue effort that for days has proceeded slowly and without hopeful news.
The pause of the search, which came a week after the condominium tower partially collapsed and just hours before President Biden’s visit to the area, further imperiled the chances of finding any survivors in the rubble. Eighteen people are known to have died in the collapse in Surfside, Fla., and as many as 145 people remain missing, numbers that have remained unchanged since Wednesday.
“They’re working in a very, very unsafe environment,” said Chief Alan Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, who described a large hanging column that threatened to destabilize the remaining structure, as well as movement in concrete slabs and the debris pile, that prompted the pause to rescue work. “I couldn’t pinpoint it to one specific incident.”
Chief Cominsky said he remained hopeful that the search would resume, though he declined to say when that might happen.
“I don’t have a time frame,” he said. “Right now, our primary focus, obviously, is rescuing our victims as well as protecting our fire personnel.”
The northeast portion of the building, facing the beach, fell to the ground, while other units were left standing. But after days of intensive searches, the scene appeared quiet on Thursday, with cranes frozen above the rubble.
“It’s a little heartbreaking, a little overwhelming,” said Pablo Rodriguez, whose mother, Elena Blasser, 64, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, 88, were among the missing. “I understand — I’ve seen the site. I understand how horrific the destruction is, but at the same time, my mother and grandmother are underneath all of that.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said state engineers had been sent to help devise a plan to safely resume the search. Adding to the urgency, the state is also bracing for possible impacts from Tropical Storm Elsa in the coming days. Additional search and rescue crews were traveling to Surfside on Thursday, Mr. Biden said.
“Obviously, we believe that continuing searching is something that’s very, very important,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We’re going to provide whatever resources they need to be able to allow the searches to continue.”
Even before the pause, the search had progressed slowly. The bodies of two sisters, ages 4 and 10, were pulled from the rubble on Wednesday as the known death toll rose to 18. Lucia Guara, 10, and her sister, Emma Guara, 4, were among four victims identified by the authorities on Wednesday evening, along with their mother, Anaely Rodriguez, 42. Rescue workers also found the body of Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21.
“Any loss of life, especially given the unexpected, unprecedented nature of this event is a tragedy,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County, visibly emotional, said at a Wednesday news conference. “But the loss of our children is too great to bear.”
Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the condo collapse. She was the mother of Jonah Handler, a 15-year-old boy who was pulled alive from the rubble in a dramatic rescue as he begged rescuers, “Please don’t leave me.”
Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, were confirmed dead by Mr. Lozano’s nephew, Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist on WSVN Channel 7 in Miami. Mr. Ferro wrote on Instagram: “They were such beautiful people. May they rest in peace.”
Luis Andres Bermudez, 26, lived with his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46, and stepfather, Frank Kleiman, 55. Mr. Bermudez’s father confirmed his son’s death on social media, writing in Spanish: “My Luiyo. You gave me everything … I will miss you all of my life. We’ll see each other soon. I will never leave you alone.”
Manuel LaFont, 54, was a businessman who worked with Latin American companies. His former wife, Adriana LaFont, described him as “the best dad.” Mr. LaFont’s son, 10, and daughter, 13, were with Ms. LaFont when the building collapsed.
Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and Cristina Beatriz Elvira, 74, were from Venezuela and had recently moved to Surfside, according to Chabadinfo.com, which said they were active in the Orthodox Jewish community in greater Chicago, where one of their daughters lives.
Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, lived with his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their two daughters, Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4, who were pronounced dead. Mr. Guara was remembered as a kind and generous man, a godfather to twins and a fan of hard rock music.
Hilda Noriega, 92, was a longtime resident of Champlain Towers South who enjoyed traveling and whose family described her “unconditional love.” Hours before the collapse, she attended a celebration with relatives.
Michael David Altman, 50, came from Costa Rica to the United States as a child, and was an avid racquetball player as a youth. “He was a warm man. He conquered a lot of obstacles in his life, and always came out on top,” his son, Nicholas, told The Miami Herald.
Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21, was in South Florida visiting Mr. LaFont, a close friend of his father’s. He was studying economics at Vanderbilt University and had been a decathlon athlete at his high school. An image of him is on a mural outside the school’s athletic facility.
Rabbi Daniel Hadar, the head rabbi of Temple Moses Sephardic Congregation of Florida, an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach, has spent the past week offering comfort and support to the anguished members of his community with family members who remain unaccounted for in the wake of the Surfside condominium collapse.
“People are looking for hope but bracing for the worst,” he said. “It’s almost like the whole community is in a state of shock and mourning.”
The rabbi has spent his days at the family reunification center, where relatives await word from the search-and-rescue effort. He has been to their homes and met with them over Zoom. Soon, he says, his role will inevitably shift toward helping families make funeral preparations, a ritual complicated by the heartbreaking circumstances. So far, only 18 bodies have been recovered from the pile of debris; as many as 145 people are missing.
“As Jews, we try to bury the dead as quickly as possible,” he said. “Practically, I think families are having an issue — if you find one family member and you don’t find the other one, are you doing separate burials, are you doing separate funerals?”
Rabbi Hadar added that Jewish families would have to decide whether to observe shiva — a seven-day mourning period — repeatedly for multiple members of the same family. “Those are going to be the discussions over the next several days, which is how do we grieve?”
Temple Moses, a congregation of more than 600 families, is among numerous synagogues within a few miles of the Champlain Towers South collapse site. Surfside, a town of just 5,600 people, is home to a large Jewish community, and several rabbis now find themselves playing a similar role.
A synagogue several blocks from the collapse, the Shul of Bal Harbour, has established a collections center for donations of food, clothing, and toiletries for survivors and victims’ families. A fund-raising campaign coordinated by local synagogues has raised $1.34 million from over 11,600 people.
“I don’t think there is another community like there is in Surfside in Miami-Dade County,” said Eli Tourgeman, who was mayor of Surfside in the early 1990s. “There is not a concentration of restaurants, of houses of worship, shops, that are very Jewish-oriented.”
A year after an engineering consultant hired by the Champlain Towers South warned of “major structural damage” to a concrete slab underneath the pool deck and recommended significant repairs, the slow pace of getting the project underway prompted the president of the condo’s homeowners association to resign.
Anette Goldstein, the condo board president, wrote in a letter to residents that she was frustrated by last-minute objections that would derail progress to get the work started.
“This pattern has repeated itself over and over, ego battles, undermining the roles of fellow board members, circulation of gossip and mistruths,” she wrote in her Sept. 14, 2019, resignation letter, which was obtained by The New York Times and first reported by The Washington Post.
“I am not presenting a very pretty picture of the functioning of our board and many before us, but it describes a board that works very hard but cannot for the reasons above accomplish the goals we set to accomplish.”
In all, five of the seven members of the condo board resigned in a two-week period, according to the minutes of the board’s meeting on Oct. 3, 2019.
The minutes did not explain why the other members resigned. Ms. Goldstein and the other members have not responded to requests for comment.
“People were quitting, and there were new people, and there was all kinds of stuff that was going on that was not pleasant,” said Max Friedman, an earlier member of the board. “I guess part of it was because of the project. There might have been personalities involved. There was all kinds of ugly stuff.”
For years before the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South complex near Miami, the condo board wrestled with how to come up with the $15 million needed to fix the building’s dilapidated roof, a poorly designed pool deck and crumbling support columns.
The problem: The homeowners’ association had just $800,000 in reserves, and getting the work done meant asking residents to shoulder huge special assessments ranging from $80,000 to $200,000 on each home. No one was eager to pay.
“The dirtiest words in the community-association industry are ‘special assessment,’” Donna DiMaggio Berger, a lawyer for the board, said of the effort to get 135 homeowners — of varying means and of multiple nationalities — to agree on a plan to do the repairs.
The deferred maintenance and inadequate savings at the Champlain Towers building are common dilemmas at condo associations across the country, where volunteer board members, sometimes with little expertise in financing or maintenance, find themselves dealing with vicious infighting with their neighbors and pressure to keep dues low.
About one-third of associations are far behind on their savings, with 30 percent or less of the money needed to prepare for future big-ticket projects, said Robert Nordlund, whose company, Association Reserves, has studied tens of thousands of condominium groups and other homeowners’ associations.
He said some boards get stuck focusing on regular maintenance costs — utilities, gardeners and pool cleaning — but fail to think about the even bigger bills that could arrive with sudden urgency.
“Just because the roof doesn’t send a bill every month doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be paid,” Mr. Nordlund said.
Tropical Storm Elsa, the fifth named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, formed on Thursday, but the National Hurricane Center said it was too soon to determine what effect the storm might have on Florida, where emergency workers have been deployed to the collapsed condo building near Miami.
The center issued a tropical storm warning, which indicates tropical storm conditions are expected within 36 hours, for St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Thursday morning, joining Barbados, Martinique and St. Lucia. Guadeloupe was under a tropical storm watch, which indicates the conditions are possible within 36 hours.
The center of the storm was hundreds of miles away from the islands Thursday morning but moving west at about 25 miles per hour. It was projected to pass near or over parts of the Windward Islands or the southern Leeward Islands on Friday and move near Hispaniola on Saturday, bringing a maximum of eight inches of rain and the possibility of flash flooding and mudslides.
Search-and-rescue crews have faced treacherous conditions at the site of the collapsed building in Surfside, Fla., which have been compounded by near-daily thunderstorms.
Florida officials have said they are prepared for the possibility of also having to deal with the arrival of a tropical storm.
“We have done this before where we have responded to multiple emergencies in the state at the same time,” Kevin Guthrie, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said on Wednesday.
With giant cranes, but also with small buckets and their hands, hundreds of rescue workers in Surfside, Fla., have removed millions of pounds of concrete, layer by layer, piece by piece, from the debris pile in their search for survivors. Early Thursday morning, though, they were forced to pause out of concern that the rest of the Champlain Towers South condo building could also fall.
One week after the collapse, the rubble stands more than 30 feet high. Some of it is being taken to a field near the interchange of the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 95 in northwestern Miami-Dade County.
The debris is ferried away by a convoy of dump trucks — a flatbed truck on Tuesday carried away a car that was buried underneath the rubble — to a secure state transportation department site where the pieces are placed in specific zones, before they are sifted through, cataloged and analyzed, officials said.
It’s like an evidence staging area, said Elizabeth Zimmerman, the former associate administrator of FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery during the Obama administration, of the second site.
“When they go through the rubble, they want to find anything that might be able to identify people that may have perished,” she said, adding that it was reminiscent of the World Trade Center site, when people were going through the debris in Lower Manhattan with their hands. “Until it’s safe to go in with bigger machines, they’re not going to do that.”
The focus of the effort remains trying to get the debris out of the way so that rescuers can find survivors or victims. “It’s very very, sad for these individuals that have probably perished,” Ms. Zimmerman said.
The evidence site, adjacent to the highways, serves many purposes. Workers will be able to go through the debris and salvage personal belongings for families; engineers might find clues about what happened; forensics experts will comb through it, as well as insurance adjusters.
One priority will be finding and examining any pieces of metal because of reports of rusting rebar within the structure, said Ms. Zimmerman, now a senior executive adviser at I.E.M., a global emergency management consulting firm based in North Carolina.
The goal of investigators will be to identify precisely why the building went down and who was responsible. “It’s not going to be this week or this month, it’s going to be a matter of months or years,” she said.