Transcript: Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett on “Face the Nation”

The following is a transcript of an interview with Charles Burkett, the mayor of Surfside, Florida, that aired on Sunday, July 4, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”


ED O’KEEFE: For more on the building collapse and the latest on the demolition plans, we turn now to the mayor of Surfside, Charles Burkett. Mr. Mayor, thank you for joining us on this Independence Day. I appreciate that this is a fluid situation. Lots of conflicting information about exactly what may transpire. What is your understanding of how soon this building could be brought down?

MAYOR BURKETT: As soon as possible. As of this morning or even last night-  I’m sorry, as of early this morning, the crews were about 80% complete with their preparation to bring the building down. As you know, the- the fact that the building is being prepared to be demolished has stopped the work, which is critical. We need to get back to work as soon as possible. We need to get this building taken down and we need to move forward with the rescue of all those people that are still left in the rubble.

ED O’KEEFE: So you’re not ruling out that it could happen today at some point? 

MAYOR BURKETT: No, I’m not.

ED O’KEEFE: Okay, so it could happen on the Fourth of July. There’s no concern about the symbolism of that potentially?

MAYOR BURKETT: We haven’t had the luxury of time to even think about that.

ED O’KEEFE: Understood. Completely understood. Can they guarantee, as they prepare to bring this building down, that it won’t disrupt the ongoing rescue effort and- and that debris field that sits there just next to the tower?

MAYOR BURKETT: Well, the intention- well, the intention is, is to bring the building down in a westward direction so that the debris pile that exists with victims in it is not affected. You know, the- the hurricane is going to turn out to have probably been a blessing in disguise because there’s an area of that mound which we were not able to work in safely. And this- this demolition is going to open up wide the whole area. And we’re going to be able to pour resources onto that pile. Or as the- the fire chief recently said, we have resources that are five deep, and we are going to attack it big time and we are going to try to pull those victims out and reunite them with their families.

ED O’KEEFE: And after 11 days, that is still the mentality that this is a search and rescue, not a recovery effort?

MAYOR BURKETT: It’s absolutely not a recovery effort. I constantly am telling people about the BBC documentary, which outlines survivability after a building collapse, where they pulled a lady in Bangladesh out after 17 days. So we’re not even near that. And, you know, there’s nobody- nobody in charge really talking about stopping this rescue effort. And this rescue effort, as far as I’m concerned, will go on until everybody’s pulled out of that debris.

ED O’KEEFE: Understood. As they prepare also to bring down the building whenever that happens. Is there any concern for those other nearby towers? And are precautions being taken to protect those in the event that this doesn’t go well?

MAYOR BURKETT: Well, you said earlier that the police are going to go door to door. However, those buildings were evacuated the day of the incident. So there are no people living in the building to the south or the north. So that should not be a barrier for us to move forward.

ED O’KEEFE: Good to hear. You’ve been in constant contact with these families who are awaiting word and from- from the people who lived in the building and were able to get out. You know, they’ve gone from obviously the shock to grief, anger, some of them acceptance about what’s going on. How are they after these 11 days?

MAYOR BURKETT: Well, this is an emotional hell for them, and it’s something that I’m focused on dealing with because we have two objectives. One is to pull their relatives out of that rubble, all of them. And number two is to focus on supporting those families. And that’s exactly what we’ve done from the very beginning. They have had anything they need and that starts from the president on down. President Biden did his job. He did what he promised he would do, and we are all very thankful to him. He came to our town. He consoled the victims. He congratulated the rescue workers, and he was extremely presidential. And again, we are very thankful for that. We’ve had our two senators who have been engaged, like you can’t believe. Marco Rubio calls me. Senator Scott texts me almost every day and asks me what I need. We’ve had our- our United States representatives, Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been fabulous, as have all our state elected officials. But the governor has been especially engaged. He’s been here almost every day. I know he flies down from North Florida. He talks to us. He tells us what his concerns are. As a matter of fact, I- I owe the governor a debt of gratitude because with his help, we were able to provide information to the mayor of Dade County that she needed in order to, you know, get this demolition going sooner than later. I know that she was getting lots of information, lots of conflicting information. But from the very beginning, the governor and I urged her to knock this building down as soon as possible, because the bottom line is the building’s been a problem since the very beginning. And we need to eliminate all the problems and all the barriers to getting everybody out of there. So once this building’s down, it’s going to be a green light, full speed ahead, maximum effort to pull these victims out and reunite them with their family. Gov- Mayor Cava has been extraordinary. Her leadership ability has been incredible. She’s been decisive. 

ED O’KEEFE: Right. 

MAYOR BURKETT: She’s been tough and she’s been compassionate. So, listen, we’re firing on all eight cylinders as far as all of the resources, all of the all of the tactics that are happening. As I’ve said from the beginning, we do not have a resource problem. We only have a luck problem. And this storm is the latest bit of challenging circumstances that we’re facing.

ED O’KEEFE: Sure. I want to ask you quickly about one piece of local reporting from the Miami Herald that found that the building’s condo association had emailed Surfside City officials just three days before the building collapsed, saying that officials were holding up repairs by not responding. What did you or your colleagues in the city government know about this request? And does that signal that this potentially could have been prevented if your colleagues had responded sooner?

MAYOR BURKETT: No. The- the issue is this, this- this- this issue all started in 2018 with a report that detailed significant deficiencies at the building. Three years later, the condo association was getting around to organizing the work to be done to address those deficiencies, which had been pointed out three years earlier. Our building official received a- a courtesy request from them, not a permit application, not a- not the details that would allow them to move forward. However, they were looking for guidance on certain issues. Our building official responded- it was just- it was a bad coincidence, just hours before the building collapsed with his answers to their questions. So–

ED O’KEEFE: Right.

MAYOR BURKETT: I wouldn’t say that the building official delayed the work that was going to get done. But I will say that the building official will be commenting on the details of that interaction fully at some point in the very near future.

ED O’KEEFE: But we look forward to that. But first, we look forward to the ongoing search and rescue mission. Best of luck to you, to your colleagues, to all those rescuers who have come from all over the country to help. I know we saw a truck from New Jersey roll by a little while ago. Thank you, Mayor Burkett.