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President Biden Visited Surfside, Fla., To Meet Family Of Victims And Rescue Teams

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden was in Surfside, Fla., today, where he met with rescue workers and the families of those who died or remain missing after last week's building collapse. He spent more than three hours with the families and spoke about it afterwards.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They had basic, heart-wrenching questions. Will they be able to recover the body of my son or daughter, my husband, my cousin, my mom and dad? How can I have closure without being able to bury them if I don't get the body? What do I do?

CHANG: At this point, 18 people are dead and nearly 150 are missing. But the massive search-and-rescue operation was suspended earlier today after indications that the remaining damaged structure was becoming unstable. NPR's Greg Allen is in Miami and joins us now. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: So let's start with President Biden's visit, because there's always some concern - right? - that presidential visits can be distracting during incredibly difficult times. Do you have a sense of why Biden felt it was so important to be there in person today?

ALLEN: Well, the president said he wanted to thank search-and-rescue teams and offer comfort to the families. He took extra time today with the families and talked about it because he said he wanted to speak to everyone who wanted to talk to him. The president knows about loss from his own personal experiences, of course. He lost his first wife and daughter in a car crash and his adult son to cancer. And he was clearly moved by the time he spent with the families today. He was asked if he thought that after a week of searching, there still might be survivors out there that can be found. And he - the president talked about what he heard from the families.

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BIDEN: They took all of the families to the site to see what it looked like up close. And they're all realists. They all look and they see those floors just literally - feet - cement upon cement upon cement.

CHANG: Well, President Biden also got a briefing from local and state officials on the response. What did he say he learned?

ALLEN: Well, at the briefing, there's a surprising - you might even say refreshing - scene of members of both parties putting politics aside and coming together. President Biden was sitting next to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who's a potential challenger, of course, to him in 2024. DeSantis praised the federal response. It was a much different tone than we've heard from the governor recently on other issues in recent days. Biden praised what he called the total cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. And he said the federal government would be paying 100% of the search-and-rescue costs for the first 30 days.

CHANG: OK. And as we said, the search-and-rescue operation was abruptly suspended early this morning. Is there any indication of when it will resume?

BIDEN: Well, as of now, it looks like work is resuming on the site. But early this morning, electronic monitors signaled that there were cracks that were expanding and a large column attached to a building had shifted, leading to fears that there could be - that some of it could start coming down on members of rescue crews who are out there working. The county has been consulting with structural engineers, though, and it looks like somehow they found a way to start resuming work on the site.

CHANG: OK. Well, it has been a week now, Greg, since this building collapse, since this effort to find survivors began. And I imagine - I mean, how are you feeling talking to people if the level of hope is still there?

ALLEN: Well, you know, no one has been found alive since last Thursday, hours after the building went down. Rescue crews emphasized that this is a very difficult situation. At today's briefing, Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky confirmed that rescue crews made contact with someone trapped in the rubble a week ago, just hours after the building collapsed.

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ALAN COMINSKY: And they were searching for - a female voice is what we heard for several hours. And eventually, we didn't hear her voice anymore. We continued searching. And again, I just - that's emphasizing the magnitude of what we're going through.

ALLEN: As they were leaving Surfside today, the president and the first lady stopped at a memorial where there's photos of the dead and missing on a chain-link fence. The first lady placed a bouquet of white irises there before they got in the car to go back to Washington.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you so much, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.