For Miami-Dade Mayor, Announcing Deaths Is a Painful Part of the Job

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U.S.|For Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, announcing the painful toll is part of the job.

The mayor of Miami-Dade County, little known outside Florida before the Surfside collapse, has helped the world track the number of dead and missing.

Miami-Dade County mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, speaking during a news conference where she announced that four more victims had been found in the rubble in Surfside, Fla., on Wednesday.
Credit...Jose A Iglesias/Miami Herald, via Associated Press

Patricia MazzeiMitch Smith

July 3, 2021

At almost every news conference, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava steps to the microphone and delivers awful news: The number of people known to have died in the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla. — and the even larger number who are still missing.

The painful ritual has made Ms. Levine Cava, a Democrat less than a year into her tenure as mayor of Miami-Dade County, a regular presence on televisions across the country. And it has brought a voice to the immense grief — and the slow fade of hope — as update after update has passed without rescue crews finding any survivors.

“I am responsible for what’s happening on this site,” Ms. Levine Cava said Friday in an interview, on a day when she announced four additional confirmed deaths, including that of the 7-year-old daughter of a firefighter. “It is my obligation to report the hard news. Then, others who have technical information, they provide it to back it up. But it’s my job to give the bad news.”

Ms. Levine Cava, 65, who spent decades as a lawyer and social services executive before entering politics, was little known beyond South Florida before Champlain Towers South collapsed on June 24. In the days since, she has become one of the faces of the response: Coordinating government agencies, fielding questions and criticism from the families of the missing, delivering televised messages in English and in Spanish.

Ms. Levine Cava, who took office in November as the first woman to serve as mayor of Florida’s largest county, and the first Democrat to hold the office in 16 years, has found herself facing a crisis of a magnitude few local officials ever encounter.

Though she has shared the stage with a long list of elected officials from both parties — from President Biden to Gov. Ron DeSantis to members of Congress and the mayor of Surfside — Ms. Levine Cava has kept the hardest job, announcing the death toll, for herself. Sometimes she pauses as she updates the figures. Sometimes she asks for prayer. Other times she acknowledges the painful wait for those whose loved ones have still not been found.

“She has to give that information — it’s expected,” said Alex Penelas, a former Miami-Dade County mayor who praised Ms. Levine Cava’s response. “But she’s got to give it with compassion, with feeling, with emotion. These are not just numbers. These are lives.”

At many news conferences, Ms. Levine Cava speaks after Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who has been omnipresent in Surfside since the collapse.

It was ultimately the mayor’s decision to pause work on Thursday when engineers worried that the rest of the tower could collapse. And it was her decision a day later to order the demolition of that structure, meaning families who escaped will not be able to retrieve their belongings.

“I’m counting on the engineers to tell me it’s unstable — I’m not going to override them on a safety issue like that,” the mayor said. “But I’m going to get involved in what were the factors considered, whether everyone was consulted, whether all the expertise on the field was utilized.”

The demolition was initially expected to take a few weeks to arrange. But on Saturday, officials announced that it would be fast-tracked to take place as soon as Monday, because of an approaching tropical storm.

The mayor also ordered an audit of aging buildings within the county’s jurisdiction, and urged cities to do the same — a step that has already led to the evacuation of a tower in North Miami Beach.

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