After Surfside collapse, some said, ‘Not now.’ But Levine Cava knows she must be a leader | Opinion

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On Day 1, when asked about accountability for the catastrophic Surfside condo collapse, too many elected officials at briefings — including Florida’s governor — initially responded with some version of the patronizing, “Now is not the time.”

When asked what would be done to ensure that another collapse of 40-year-old buildings similar to the Champlain Towers South wasn’t on the horizon, the answers similarly were void of any clear plan of action.

Condo collapse is an urgent alert that old Florida structures need auditing | Opinion

Let’s focus the attention on victims, their families and search-and-rescue efforts, a parade of Florida elected officials urged in front of the cameras, wriggling out of answering key, relevant questions.

But not Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, the county’s top executive.

Accountability for what happened and preventing another horrific tragedy already were on Levine Cava’s mind, and she had no issue acknowledging this early on. She showed, equally, genuine concern for victims and their families and engaged state and federal agencies to aid in the search for survivors and beyond.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and County Commissioner Oliver G. Gilbert console people waiting for updates from the Champlain Towers collapse site at a reunification center at 9301 Collins Ave. in Surfside on Thursday, June 24, 2021.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and County Commissioner Oliver G. Gilbert console people waiting for updates from the Champlain Towers collapse site at a reunification center at 9301 Collins Ave. in Surfside on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

At daily briefings, she has answered media questions with respect, all while forging plans to put preventive measures in place immediately.

She hit the right notes, saying she would order an audit of old buildings and demand repairs and push for a grand-jury investigation into the Champlain Towers collapse.

It isn’t just talk. All of those things are in the works.

By Saturday, two days after the collapse, the county’s first female mayor had announced that a 30-day building audit would begin immediately for all residential properties taller than five stories that had not completed the 40-year structural-certification process.

Required by Florida law, the process of identifying and making costly repairs to fix structural issues often drags on, as was the case with Champlain, which started the process early, but still needed to come up with millions to fix a myriad of problems.

And Levine Cava went further.

She called on all Miami-Dade municipalities to “swiftly conduct similar audits in their cities.”

“We stand ready to offer any and all assistance necessary to complete this process,” she tweeted.

After Surfside collapse, Miami-Dade governments check on older buildings, discuss reform

As a result, two Miami-Dade housing complexes have already been flagged in an audit of unsafe structures.

Two Miami-Dade housing complexes flagged in audit of unsafe structures after condo collapse

A catastrophe of this magnitude — 12 confirmed dead, 149 still missing — isn’t the kind of test leaders want to have to face, but Levine Cava, 65, is in the thick of it.

Although she doesn’t want to talk about herself, it’s important to note that, despite being newly elected to the post in November, she’s showing remarkable leadership, not to mention aplomb — and in two languages.

Her Spanish-language skill isn’t native. She learned it while living with her parents in Latin America and put it to work while a social worker in Miami. It served her well on the campaign trail, first as commissioner, then during the bitter and partisan race for mayor in which her Republican opponent used red-baiting tactics to portray her as a leftist.

At the day’s first briefing, Levine Cava marks the timeline.

“Here we are, Day 6,” she said Tuesday.

Poignant for all that this represents in terms of finding survivors, in reuniting families, in giving closure to days and days of raw grief and the mammoth efforts.

She quickly gets to the important points, then steps away from the limelight to allow experts to elaborate.

Sometimes, it’s not only what she does, but what she doesn’t do.

When a journalist questioned if Gov. DeSantis had taken too long to sign an emergency disaster declaration so that considerable state and federal emergency resources could be made available, she didn’t throw the governor under the bus.

Levine Cava had requested the order.

President Biden said that the federal government was ready to help Florida as soon as the governor declared a state of emergency, but he was waiting on DeSantis to act.

“I say to the people of Florida, whatever help you want that the federal government can provide, we are waiting, just ask us, we’ll be there,” Biden said.

DeSantis’ order didn’t come until the late afternoon, but Levine Cava wasn’t going to play politics.

Although she has taken on DeSantis before for lifting COVID-19 restrictions too early, this time she praised the governor and the state’s help and presence in South Florida, saying she was thankful.

Brava.

People have noticed her leadership.

“You show strength, compassion and calm to address this situation,” Aventura Realtor Adriana Faerman tweeted to the mayor.

Levine Cava also is modest.

She politely declined to talk to me about her role managing the disaster.

“She’s not engaging on the topic of herself right now, because this is not about her,” Rachel Johnson, the mayor’s spokeswoman, explained. “She’s not the story.”

On this, too, Levine Cava is on point.

What matters are the victims, their families and the safety of her constituents, whose buildings, thanks to her leadership, are being audited without delay.

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