SURFSIDE, Fla. — Since the Champlain Towers South condo tower collapsed 12 days ago, the mayor of Miami-Dade County has made daily appearances before a cluster of television cameras.
As Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, 65, has sought to soothe victims and residents, explain the work of first responders and deliver agonizing news about the missing and the dead, she has become the face of the response to the catastrophe.
In an interview Monday, Levine Cava said that the effort was “grueling” but that she was honored to do the work and help the small city of Surfside recuperate.
Levine Cava, a native New Yorker and lawyer who worked with special needs children and immigrants at a legal services agency in the Miami area, was involved in the aftermath of another local catastrophe — Hurricane Andrew.
The Category 5 storm left dozens of people dead and destroyed thousands of homes in South Florida in 1992. Levine Cava developed an intake system for children whose lives had been devastated.
“The level of destruction was so mind-boggling,” she told The Miami Herald in 2014. “I was so desperate to find a way to be helpful.”
Levine Cava was elected county commissioner in 2014. Last year, she ran for mayor.
Levine Cava said that the devastation and death in the latest disaster were a “gut punch — especially when it’s children.”
“Each of these victims is somebody’s mother, brother, sister, best friend,” she said. “The stories are just gut wrenching.”
Search and rescue teams have found 28 bodies in the rubble, four of them on Monday, after the rest of the building was demolished Sunday night. Levine Cava had said it was critical that the building come down as quickly as possible to allow first responders to search parts that had remained inaccessible.
Nearly 120 residents remained unaccounted for. With Tropical Storm Elsa approaching, Levine Cava said officials were confident that the storm would not hit the region too hard and halt the search effort.
“There will be wind. There will be rain,” she said. “We’ll be able to work all the way up to 30 mph wind speed.”
She added: “Lightning strikes — that’s all that will keep us off the pile.”
Jamie Morrison reported from Surfside, Fla., and Tim Stelloh from California.
CORRECTION (July 6, 2021, 9 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the day the interview with Mayor Daniella Levine Cava was conducted. It was Monday, not Sunday.