It was Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s seventh day delivering grim news from the Surfside operation when she took a deep breath at the cluster of microphones where she had already announced 16 deaths.
“Since our last briefing, I am very pained to tell you that we found two additional bodies in the rubble,” Levine Cava said at a media briefing aired around the world on June 30. “It is also with great sorrow — real pain — that I have to share with you that two of these were children…In the worst of times, we come together and we pray together.”
The county’s police department would follow-up with a press release including official identification of the collapse’s youngest known victim to date, Emma Guara, 4, and sister Lucia Guara, 11. The early word from Levine Cava reflected her self-assigned role in the ongoing Surfside catastrophe: the public face of an response that hasn’t found a survivor since the early hours of the collapse.
“I’m the incident commander,” Levine Cava, 65, said in a brief interview after one of her twice-daily press conferences. “I’m responsible for what happens. So it’s my duty to deliver difficult news.”
Miami-Dade’s new mayor overseeing Surfside response
The Champlain Towers South building fell on the 146th day of Levine Cava’s tenure as mayor, a non-partisan elected position that serves as Miami-Dade’s top administrator.
That puts Levine Cava in charge of both the county fire department and the police department, giving her responsibility for the decisions driving the response — including in recent days when to send search workers back onto the rubble as the risk of the remaining structure collapsing without warning. Authorities planned to demolish the remaining building as early as Sunday night.
“I don’t tell them to take risks that are not recommended,” said Levine Cava, a lawyer and former non-profit executive who once worked as a social worker. “But I do encourage swift decision making.”
A long-time advocate for social services as the founder of a non-profit now called Catalyst Miami, Levine Cava is a fairly new player in Miami-Dade politics. She won her first election in 2014 by running as a progressive outsider against conservative incumbent Lynda Bell, a rare defeat of a sitting commissioner. Levine Cava served on the board for six years before winning the 2020 mayoral race to succeed Carlos Gimenez, a former fire chief. A county police chief, Carlos Alvarez, held the office before Gimenez, making Levine Cava the first mayor in 16 years without a career in government administration or experience with emergency management.
“I give her high marks,” said former county mayor Alex Penelas, who lost to Levine Cava in the August 2020 primary when he tried to reclaim an office the lawyer and real estate investor last held in 2004. “She’s been able to show leadership and fill that leadership space. At the same time, she’s been deferential. She’s walked off the stage when it’s been time for experts or other government colleagues to speak.”
Levine Cava’s role as the primary voice for the Miami-Dade response cast her in the national spotlight, and her official Instagram feed has chronicled her public and private moments. That’s included signing emergency orders, visiting a Surfside memorial with President Biden, and a close-up of her hands clasped around another pair of hands, with the message: “We will get through this, together.”
Social media also revealed early friction with families of the missing, some of whom grew fatigued with the presence of elected officials in private briefings.
Levine Cava faces family grief, anger
Two days after the collapse, a video showed Levine Cava, the county’s first Jewish mayor, attempting to invoke faith in an effort to calm a chaotic moment as family members demanded answers from rescue administrators. As Gov. Ron DeSantis stood silently beside her in a hotel ballroom, Levine Cava took the microphone and said: “We just need calm for a moment. Please, everyone take a moment and listen to God.”
“There are no moments here,” someone responded from the audience. A later briefing captured a heavy sigh off camera when a deputy fire chief paused his briefing to introduce “Madame Mayor.”
“We don’t care,” a family member said off camera. “We want the update.” Levine Cava took the microphone, and said she wanted to assure the audience that elected officials would stay away when family members next visited the collapse site. “It’s a private and personal time,” she said.
In Surfside, Levine Cava said her work includes “constant” communication with family members, even as she steers clear of the briefings, “based on their request not to have politicians in the room.” That interaction includes a delicate balance of expectations in a search effort that has only uncovered victims. “Clearly, we were starting with survival last week,” she said after June 30 briefing. “For some [families], they’re feeling less hopeful. For others, they’re waiting until the end of the search and rescue efforts.”
Levine Cava described a recent meeting with rabbis about how to comply with burial traditions when the full remains of a victim haven’t been recovered in a town that’s a hub of Jewish life in Miami-Dade. “We’ve been talking with the rabbis about those concerns, making sure we can support the ritual,” she said.
Her background: lawyer, social worker, non-profit founder
Now a grandmother of two, the native New Yorker moved to Miami in the 1980s after graduating with joint degrees in law and social work from Columbia University. Her future husband, physician Robert Cava, was launching his career in Coral Gables, and Levine Cava struggled to find her place until a crisis hit. That was 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, and Levine Cava wound up overseeing Florida’s local foster-child program after a storm that left thousands of children needing homes or aid.
“The level of destruction was so mind-boggling,” she said in a 2014 interview. “I was so desperate to find a way to be helpful.”
In 1996, she founded the Human Services Coalition, a non-profit advocating for low-income families and other causes, including urgency on climate change, under its new name, Catalyst Miami. Levine Cava left her position as executive director in 2014 to become a county commissioner. There, she was one of the board’s most liberal members and often on the losing side of big votes, including commission approval of the State Road 836 toll-road extension and changing county jail policies to detain suspected immigration offenders after Donald Trump became president in 2017.
After the Surfside collapse, Levine Cava typically begins in each press morning briefing with the greeting, “Here we are,” followed by the number of the days that have passed since the collapse. For Donna Shalala, a former University of Miami president and Democratic member of Congress, the inclusive introduction reflects Levine Cava’s role leading the community at large through its own trauma from Surfside.
“This has been the role of a leader understanding the community’s grief,” said Shalala, who backed Levine Cava’s 2020 campaign to be the county’s first female mayor. “She’s shown both leadership, and empathy. I think the mayor has been magnificent.”
For Surfside families, politicians not wanted
Levine Cava’s pledge to Surfside families about the absence of politicians highlighted another challenge: managing relations with county commissioners eager to be photographed at the collapse site and kept informed through private briefings. Commissioners privately complained after a Levine Cava aide instructed them they needed to make appointments to visit the site through her office, rather than just arriving.
Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz, a top Levine Cava rival on the board before Surfside, tried to organize Surfside briefings under Florida’s Sunshine laws that he could preside over before a public audience but ended up canceling them after criticism.
Commissioner Raquel Regalado, a potential 2024 challenger for Levine Cava, has requested legislation outlining a mayor’s duty to brief commissioners “prior to press conferences” after what she called “at best, paternalistic” concerns about confidentiality from one of Levine Cava’s deputies.
Levine Cava, a Democrat in the non-partisan post, also announced a central role for herself in determining how Miami-Dade can prevent another collapse. She said she would meet with experts and draft potential reforms with her administration.
That could be her first test of her leadership and clout after the Surfside collapse, with commissioners already filing legislation and asking to form task forces that would produce their own plans for reforms.
“Obviously, there is a timing issue,” Regalado said. “The timing issue is she’s physically at Surfside… I’m not at Surfside. It’s a bandwidth issue.”
At Surfside, Levine Cava said she’s been approving difficult decisions facing the rescue operation. That includes authorizing search squads to resume their work on the rubble after the operation paused for 15 hours Thursday amid fears the remaining Champlain Towers South structure would topple.
As authorities waited for the green light from engineers on what areas of the debris pile could be searched safely, Levine Cava said she convened the top administrators to make sure there would be no delay in executing the resumption orders.
“We knew the engineers were meeting,” she said. “I had everybody ready, on stand-by.”
In recent days, she had to retract a prior confident statement that a demolition would take weeks, while Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett was urging Miami-Dade to take down the remaining structure ahead of the Elsa cyclone. On Saturday, Levine Cava said the response team discovered a shorter timetable was possible based on the arrival of new experts.
On Sunday, Levine Cava moved her morning press briefing to the county’s Emergency Operations center in Doral, a change pegged to the potential threat of Tropical Storm Elsa. It was also Fourth of July, and Levine Cava read from prepared remarks about moments when everyday Americans rose to face historic challenges.
“That story has been written throughout the pages of our history,” she said, her voice catching. “And now it’s being written right here in Surfside… This Fourth of July, we’re reminded patriotism isn’t just about loyalty to our country. It’s about loyalty to one another.”
Doug Hanks covers Miami-Dade government for the Herald. He’s worked at the paper for nearly 20 years, covering real estate, tourism and the economy before joining the Metro desk in 2014. Support my work with a digital subscription