UM alumnus steers Surfside through condo collapse tragedy

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett speaks to a reporter outside the site of Thursday’s disaster at Champlain Towers South.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett speaks to a reporter outside the site of Thursday’s disaster at Champlain Towers South. Photo credit: Rachel Pinzur

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett walked through crowds of first responders and reporters Saturday, answering questions and offering support to families near the former Champlain Towers South, a 13-story condominium replaced by a smoking pile of rubble after its collapse Thursday.

“My role is very insignificant,” Burkett said. “My duties are really to support the families, which is what I’ve primarily been focusing on, because obviously what they’re going through is really unimaginable.”

At about 1:30 a.m. on June 24, the beach-front condo crashed to the ground in a pile of fiery rubble, turning the small beach-side town of Surfside, just north of Miami Beach, upside down.

The three-term mayor is a graduate of the University of Miami. He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance in 1983 and built a career in real estate investing. Burkett first purchased properties in Miami Beach in the ’80s, later expanding into other states with his Surfside-based property investment firm The Burkett Companies.

Surfside is about 21 miles northeast of UM’s Coral Gables campus, directly to the south of Bal Harbour. The town declared a state of emergency on Friday. On Sunday, Miami Beach did the same thing, hoping to gain access to special government emergency funding.

Miami Dade police officers make conversation outside of an improvised restroom area at the site of the collapse. Volunteers and first responders work and talk in the background on Saturday, June 26, the third day of rescue operations.
Miami Dade police officers make conversation outside of an improvised restroom area at the site of the collapse. Volunteers and first responders work and talk in the background on Saturday, June 26, the third day of rescue operations. Photo credit: Liam McNeer

“A significant portion of the staging for the emergency response is taking place within Miami Beach,” the city said in a press release.

In his return to the mayor’s office last year, Burkett defeated another UM graduate, incumbent Daniel Dietch. Dietch graduated in 2002 with a master’s degree in management. He became mayor in 2010 by defeating Burkett, going on to serve for 10 years – five two-year terms – before Burkett made his comeback. Dietch was not immediately available for comment.

Burkett beat Dietch by 50 out of 1,214 total votes cast in 2020. He has served as mayor for less than two years since winning the March 17 municipal election.

Now, Burkett has been thrust into a central role in a crisis that has received international attention. At least 150 residents of Champlain Towers South were still unaccounted for on Sunday. Nine deaths had been confirmed. In a town of only 5,600, everyone seems to be suffering.

“We all know someone, a cousin, second-or-third degree, friends, and it’s shocking to believe that something like this could happen here,” said Mary Murphy, a 20-year Surfside resident.

A family huddles close at the Surfside Tennis Center on Saturday, June 26. The center's gate has been used as a memorial wall for those lost in the collapse.
A family huddles close at the Surfside Tennis Center on Saturday, June 26. The center's gate has been used as a memorial wall for those lost in the collapse. Photo credit: Liam McNeer

Burkett, who has a teenage son, said Surfside was grateful for the heavy support from Washington, Miami-Dade County and emergency workers from Jacksonville and other places. Still, he said, the search for survivors has gone slowly despite first responders working 24 hours a day.

“We don’t have a resource problem because we’ve had support from the White House down; we really only have a luck problem,” Burkett said, lamenting the endurance of a fire Saturday that lasted several hours.

“We had a persistent fire at the property and that seems to be under control, even as of the last couple of hours, which is good and means that we can put our search and rescue people on the complete debris pile as opposed to just a percentage of it,” Burkett said.

Spectators observe Saturday’s continued rescue mission as first responders slowly work through debris on Saturday, June 27. The surviving section of Champlain Towers South stands to the right, coated in chipping paint and dust.
Spectators observe Saturday’s continued rescue mission as first responders slowly work through debris on Saturday, June 27. The surviving section of Champlain Towers South stands to the right, coated in chipping paint and dust. Photo credit: Parker Gimbel

Rescue teams were forced to wait out a steady fire Saturday, concerned that dumping water on the pile could shift debris or drown any remaining survivors.

Burkett has made himself highly visible in the wake of the collapse, traveling between the several city landmarks repurposed to support desperate relatives and volunteers.

The Town of Surfside Community Center, known for its swimming pools and ocean-front view, has become a place of refuge for relatives and friends of people who lived in the destroyed condo. Donations from a range of organizations filled the center to its storage capacity, leaving water bottles and snacks piled high at its entrance.

“After disasters, we support each other, that’s what human beings do, that’s what all life does,” said Tampa resident Jimmy Dunson, a volunteer with Mutual Aid, a decentralized disaster-relief network. “We know that people are supporting each other and taking care of each other in these difficult times, and we want to back them up, we want to support these spontaneous manifestations of mutual aid rooted in the local community.”

Water bottles and snacks line the entrance to the Town of Surfside Community Center on Saturday, June 27, as a Red Cross volunteer makes his way toward the building’s front door. The center was repurposed to support individuals impacted by the Thursday collapse of Champlain Towers South.
Water bottles and snacks line the entrance to the Town of Surfside Community Center on Saturday, June 27, as a Red Cross volunteer makes his way toward the building’s front door. The center was repurposed to support individuals impacted by the Thursday collapse of Champlain Towers South. Photo credit: Parker Gimbel

Joseph Zevuloni, who helped organize volunteer work at the community center, said he was thankful for the people of South Florida and the way they have worked together since the collapse.

“I’m from Broward County, but Miami is my home, and I’m very proud of the Florida community: we’re resilient and planning on offering as much support as possible,” Zevuloni said.

Zevuloni, of the Jewish Relief Agency, said that volunteers from the Red Cross and other relief organizations have been delivering food to hotels housing the families waiting for updates on their loved ones. About a third of the people who live in Surfside are Jewish, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Scenes of somber mourning dominate the streets across from the mound of debris, left in the wake of what many residents say was likely an avoidable disaster.

“There’s a million old buildings in Miami: Why did the one that fell down, why did it have to be in Surfside?” asked Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer at a Friday town commission meeting called to establish the state of emergency.

“I think it happened in Surfside because Surfside is the town to be a leader in changes that need to be made to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Why do we wait 40 years before we have to recertify a building on a beach, with beach air, with salt air corroding the building?”

Burkett and Salzhauer have a history of clashing over town policy. In January, Burkett alleged on Facebook that Salzhauer was attempting to censor his speech as mayor. That was after a virtual commission meeting in June, 2020, when Salzhauer showed Burkett both middle finger after he cut off her microphone.

At Friday’s meeting, Burkett said he was more concerned with listening to Surfside families than government policy.

“I was up at the community center talking to the families today, and the one thing that they said to me was that they really didn’t want to hear as much from the politicians as they wanted to hear from the fire chief and the experts that are actually doing the work,” Burkett said in the meeting.

Burkett called to adjourn the meeting after five minutes. He was stopped by Vice Mayor Tina Paul requesting time to speak. Paul, a photographer and Miami Beach native, agreed with Salzhauer. The meeting went on to last over one hour.

“There are things we need to do right now to make sure that this never happens again and to ensure that all of the other buildings that are here in Surfside are sound,” Paul said.

The commission is made up of the mayor, a vice mayor and three commissioners. Commissioners are responsible for setting the town’s general policy and appointing a town manager, the person responsible for implementing legislation.

Commissioner Salzhauer protested Miami-Dade County’s lack of policy revision since Champlain Towers South was built.

“When these rules were put into place, global warming was imaginary.”

On Saturday, Mayor Burkett had one thing to say to city, state and national leaders: “Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for all of the support and the love and the prayers.”

The Surfside Tourist Information Center sits directly in front of the ongoing support effort at the Surfside Community Center on Saturday, June 26. County police have blocked off this street, along with many of Surfside’s now heavily congested roadways.
The Surfside Tourist Information Center sits directly in front of the ongoing support effort at the Surfside Community Center on Saturday, June 26. County police have blocked off this street, along with many of Surfside’s now heavily congested roadways. Photo credit: Parker Gimbel

Liam McNeer, Rahul Kumar, and Veronica Porges contributed to the reporting.