A previous version of this article listed an incorrect address for Champlain Towers South. The article has been corrected.
The crisis among the living, as is so often the case, is being tended with food and drink, clothes and toiletries, creature comforts aimed to soothe and distract.
And money. So much money. Financial donations have poured in. The Chesed Fund, which will be administered by the Shul of Bal Harbour synagogue, had raised $1,091,319 by Monday morning. The Miami Heat basketball team and several local organizations have created a hardship fund for the victims called Support Surfside. Businessman Orlando Bravo donated $250,000 on Sunday, bringing that total to $1.2 million.
That money will go toward all the things that insurance won’t cover for those who survived, and as direct support for the families of those who died. But as Michael Capponi, founder of Global Empowerment Mission, a Miami-based nonprofit organization, said, “Sometimes the bigger funds are hard to access right away, so we made our fund very specific and whatever is raised is being distributed equally among all the residents, period.”
His group ordinarily provides relief during international disasters, but he has turned its attention to its own backyard, contacting local businesses to provide necessities not only for the people who lost their apartments, but also for other condo residents who have evacuated out of concern for their safety, Capponi said. His is a socks-and-soap fund.
So far, 17 families of Champlain residents have received $1,500 Visa gift cards so they can begin purchasing what they need, according to the group, which has partnered with BStrong, an initiative by reality TV star Bethenny Frankel. More than $230,000 had been raised as of Sunday. Capponi said the local group is able to meet directly with families, offering emotional support as well as putting them in touch with developers who have offered free furnished apartments.
Capponi, who has been involved in relief for disasters including Haiti’s earthquake as well as the crisis in Kosovo in 1999, said the trauma endured by residents in Surfside is unlike anything he has heard of before.
“It’s a miracle that they are alive,” he said. Two residents told Capponi that they had worked for 20 years to pay off their mortgage, completing their final payment the week before the collapse. Now they have nothing but the clothes they were wearing when they evacuated.
“An entire life working and now it’s crumbled and it’s rock and it’s debris and it’s nothing,” Capponi said. He said it will take much more for victims to recover, adding that he’s working to provide long-term solutions, including at least a year’s worth of rent.
He said that “$1,500 is a nice gesture, but in reality they’ve lost everything.”
Still, what members of the Surfside community marvel at, even as they grieve, are the hundreds of similar acts of kindness that have filled the hours since Thursday. Some are tiny — a young boy doling out candy to first responders — and some have required monumental, coordinated efforts from strangers halfway around the world.
On Sunday morning, a volunteer team of six arrived from United Hatzalah of Israel’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. In matching white polo shirts, they walked down Harding Avenue, the main business district of tiny downtown Surfside, ready to minister to the psychological needs of families of the missing as well as first responders at the collapse site.
“We were told there was need among the EMTs,” clinical psychologist Sharon Slater said, referring to emergency medical technicians. “Often, first responders don’t use internal services because they are worried about career advancement. They are concerned about confidentiality, and we offer them complete psyc.”
Social workers and therapists work in small groups or one on one, performing the delicate task of coaching parents to help their children make sense of what has happened and to aid rescue workers as they process what they’ve witnessed before acute stress disorder sets in, a precursor to post-traumatic stress disorder, Slater said.
According to Dovie Maisel, vice president of operations, this is the fourth time the group has responded to crises in the United States — Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
“I’ve been to disasters all over the world, and it’s strange to see one in a place like this,” Maisel said, spreading his arms wide to encompass the palm trees and tourists in beachy attire.
Shekar Reddy’s act of kindness was borne of his own experience as an immigrant, his knowledge of outsider-hood, having emigrated from India in 1983.
His Gummakonda Foundation, based in Hallandale, Fla., has chosen to focus on displaced people as well as the international members of missing family members, many of them arriving bleary after long trips with nowhere to stay. Hotel rooms in Surfside are fully booked, so Reddy and his partner Yeny Paola Rico are booking and paying for hotel rooms in neighboring communities. They’ve set up a booth at the community center in Surfside, also doling out free flip-flops to those who may have evacuated their homes shoeless or without a change of clothes.
“Some of these families, they come from outside the country [and] don’t speak English or know how to navigate things like reservations. And right now, it’s a little bit crazy,” Rico said.
Este Shifman, a Surfside resident whose husband owns Street Kitchen and Mendel’s Backyard BBQ in town, has been volunteering at the community center, sorting an avalanche of prepared food, snacks and beverages.
Much of the surplus has been trekked over to the JSC Kosher Food Bank in Miami. Bonnie Schwartzbaum, director of the food bank, said the 4,500-square-foot warehouse is “to the ceiling, we’ve never been so full.” On Saturday before she went home for the night, she told a nearby police officer that he should come by for food, but “he said they couldn’t leave their posts,” she said.
She and her friend Astrid Navarro loaded up two big beach wagons with supplies and began to roll them slowly toward the disaster site, distributing food and beverages to police officers, state troopers, firefighters and other first responders. Civilians are still not allowed in the blocks near the collapse site, so they took a risk.
“We were feeding the cops on this corner and then the next one. And before you know it, we were standing in front of the pile. We were so close we were getting sprayed with water and there were fires and the smell was terrible,” Shifman said. “They were working so hard, and it was a feeling of, wow, we did something that helps them. The firefighters hadn’t eaten all day. What I did last night was completely unexpected, I could not have told you that I was going to do it.”
Since then, Shifman and Navarro have set up a volunteer system to walk wagons of food and water to the workers at the disaster site every few hours.
Some acts of kindness have been small and personal. Stormy weather has hindered rescuers’ efforts to pull victims from the rubble, wind scattering personal items of the missing, a grim reminder of the lives people lived in the building. A football. A stuffed animal. A bar mitzvah T-shirt.
Rescuers have collected toys and other belongings to leave at a makeshift memorial site that was set up a block away. The memorial, which has been blocked off temporarily as a responders expanded the perimeter, has become a place for those digging through fragments to amass possessions, perhaps once prized by their owners, now cherished as the last traces of people who disappeared under a pile of debris.
For Benjamin Abo, a physician embedded with the rescue team, the array of treasures is a tribute that can help people affected by the tragedy pay their respects.
“We’re not here just to try to save lives but we’re also treating the community and the survivors,” Abo said.
He thought of the idea to bring items from the site after he saw children’s trinkets, including a Hess toy truck like the ones he received from his grandparents every Hanukkah. Since then, other rescuers have brought more during their breaks.
Abo, like other locals involved in the rescue effort, knew some of the victims personally, including a hospital colleague as well as relatives of friends.
“When you talk about a response to our community this is my community, too,” Abo said. As they work through layers of debris, the rescuers feel tense as they come to certain spots, seeing remnants of a room and imagining who lived there, he said.
“We can tell when we get to a bedroom, we can tell when we get to a nursery,” Abo said. “There’s memorabilia, there’s menorahs, there’s cribs.”
“Even if you don’t recover a body, you recover a life that’s lost,” he added.
When state Sen. Jason Pizzo toured the site, tattered family photos landed at the Miami Democrat’s feet. He picked them up, intending to reunite family pictures with the relatives left behind. During his first trip there, he collected three photos, one of which was a photo from Jay Kleiman’s bar mitzvah. Kleiman is missing, along with family members from Puerto Rico who were staying in two units on the seventh floor.
The day after finding the photo, Pizzo said he met with Kleiman’s family members, who were waiting for news of their missing relatives.
“I told them, ‘I got to tell you, I found a picture of Jay’s bar mitzvah blowing in the wind,’ ” he said.
Pizzo gave the photos to Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava with the hope it will aid officials and then be returned to the family, along with other personal items he saw, including chairs, rugs and a luggage tag bearing the name of Daniel Cohen, another missing resident.
“There’s a balance between needing to conduct a thorough investigation,” he said, referring to the ongoing inquiry about the building’s structural deficiencies.
There is one act of kindness that many Surfside residents still hold out hope won’t be necessary. Yona Lunger is the founder of Chesed of South Florida. The volunteer group trains people for search and rescue and to work with the bodies of the dead, preparing them for burial.
“We do cleanups at car accidents and fires, cleaning up the blood and what is left and burying it with the dead. For Jews, one who dies has to go into the ground immediately and as whole as possible,” he said.
Lunger says the group is waiting for the go-ahead to begin scheduling shifts at the collapse site.
“It takes a very special person to do this kind of work,” he said. “We do this for the family of a lost loved one.”
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