The Media Today

Covering the tragedy in Surfside from near and far

June 28, 2021

Early on Thursday morning, a residential condo collapsed in Surfside, a town just north of Miami Beach, in Florida. Joey Flechas, a reporter for the Miami Herald, was quickly on the scene, since he lives ten minutes away from the building. “I’m a member of this community who has talked to some of these first responders, politicians and neighbors before,” he said. “And I’m just one of many of us who can say the same thing.” Since the collapse, Flechas and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to cover the story—the state of the rescue mission; the identities of the deceased and the missing; the fact that, as far back as 2018, an engineer had flagged “major structural damage” linked to drainage issues on the pool deck—in English and also in Spanish, for readers of the Herald’s sister title, El Nuevo Herald, in the Miami area and far beyond. The Miami Herald has updated its website with a series of huge banner headlines: “COLLAPSE,” “HEARTBREAK,” and, as of early this morning, “SEARCHING”; El Nuevo Herald’s homepage was still on “ANGUSTIA,” meaning “anguish.” Meanwhile, the confirmed death toll rose to one, then four, then five, then nine. More than a hundred and fifty people are still unaccounted for.

As Flechas noted, the collapse has been deeply personal for many journalists in the Miami area. Two of the named victims, Gladys and Tony Lozano, were the godmother and uncle of Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist at 7News, a local TV station. “My cousin called me. He was basically in tears. I still couldn’t believe it, until we got the surveillance video that showed the building collapsing. And that kinda… it kinda breaks your heart,” Ferro told his station yesterday. “They were found together. And so we’re all going with the thought that they never knew what happened. They fell asleep, and that was it.” While living it, reporters in the area have also run into the typical obstacles that come with covering a story of this magnitude—access issues; navigating interviews with traumatized survivors and relatives—as well as more specific challenges, like thick smoke at the collapse site, and bad weather. The Surfside collapse is not the first major tragedy they’ve faced in recent times: they’ve had to cover the pandemic, mass shootings—including at a high school in nearby Parkland in 2018—and even a prior infrastructure disaster, when a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed the same year, killing six people. Many Miami journalists must be exhausted. Now they’re up at night wondering if their buildings, like the Surfside condo, may somehow be unsafe.

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National and international media outlets, of course, have been on the scene, too. NBC’s Lester Holt and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell flew in to anchor their respective evening newscasts from Surfside on Thursday night; CNN sent a variety of its top talents, including Wolf Blitzer, Chris Cuomo, and Anderson Cooper; MSNBC sent Ali Velshi. Print and radio reporters, too, have congregated both at the collapse site, and at a reunification center a few blocks away. Surfside may be next to a bustling metropolis, but it is itself a sleepy town, and thus unaccustomed—like so many other American locales that have been thrust, ill-fatedly, into a harsh spotlight down the years—to life at the epicenter of a global news story. As Martin Vassolo reports for the Herald, town staff have worked “around the clock, answering phone calls from family members, reporters, and residents with unrelated concerns”; the clerk’s office “received scores of record requests from media outlets, including the Miami Herald, which has requested construction permits, blueprints and architectural plans, and records of any building inspections or code violations logged by the town related to the collapse.” The effect has been overwhelming.

The coverage has extended far beyond those who are on the ground. Some national outlets have moved the story forward in meaningful ways: NPR, for example, obtained the minutes of a meeting, in the wake of the engineer’s report about the condo in 2018, at which a local official apparently told residents that the building is in “very good shape.” NPR got wind of the meeting from Susana Alvarez, a resident and survivor of the collapse who gave a heart-rending interview to Lulu Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition and recalled being told that the condo was safe. Alvarez spoke about having to leave her cat behind, and hearing the screams of other residents; afterward, Garcia-Navarro said that “in my many years talking to survivors, I’ve never experienced a conversation that was so intimate and open.” The collapse led some of the Sunday shows yesterday, including Meet the Press, whose host, Chuck Todd, himself a Miami native, interviewed Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade County; that soon gave way to fluffier fare on Biden, bipartisanship, and infrastructure wrangling in Washington, but later in the hour, MSNBC’s Joshua Johnson brought the story back round—noting, correctly, that “Florida is one big infrastructure project, right?” On CNN, Cuomo compared the collapse to 9/11. The front page of yesterday’s New York Post splashed the faraway story and drew the same local link.

This morning, the collapse is still the top story on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, illustrated, respectively, by photos of rubble, and of two people reading Hebrew psalms on the beach, the sun glinting off the sea. The Times’s lead story reports that the collapse may have started at or near the base of the condo, but the precise cause remains a mystery; add the painstaking progress of the search, and, as CNN’s Brian Stelter put it overnight, “there’s very little actual news to report”—in terms of those central facts, at least. On Friday, Bianca Padró Ocasio, a Herald reporter who, like Flechas, lives close to the condo, told PRI’s The World that, “as the hours pass by, I think that people feel less and less hope about the news that they’re going to get. Sometimes, time makes things feel like they’re a little further away, but now it’s the opposite—it’s kind of like, as the hours pass by, it feels like it’s gonna get worse.” Padró Ocasio added, “everyone just feels really on edge, and really unable to sleep.”

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Below, more on Surfside:

  • The victims: The Herald has been among the outlets to profile some of the people who are confirmed to have died in the collapse, and those who remain missing. “They all had different reasons for being there that night,” Carlos Frías wrote. “But their stories intersect with a thunderclap and a roar in the dark.” One of those who remains missing is Graciela Cattarossi, an Argentine national who worked as a photographer. Her parents, sister, and seven-year-old daughter, Stella, are missing, too.
  • Media criticism: Verónica Soledad Zaragovia, a reporter with WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station, called on TV news stations not to air interviews with people saying that buildings collapsing is the sort of thing that happens in “third-world countries,” not the US. “When someone is in pain and angry, you don’t need to air everything they say,” Zaragovia wrote on Twitter, “certainly not hurtful and untrue comments.” Among those to have made such remarks is Charles Burkett, Surfside’s mayor.
  • Media praise: Garcia-Navarro’s NPR interview with Alvarez won praise yesterday from Barry Jenkins, the movie director. “I myself question the efficacy of placing survivors of such unprecedented disasters before the public. And yet, Lulu is SO present and gentle here, it becomes clear that Ms. Alvarez needs to be heard as much as we desire to listen,” Jenkins (who is also a Miami native) wrote. “You can hear Ms. Alvarez processing her grief in real time, turning it over in her mind and moving through it, releasing it in bursts… In this interview journalist and counselor are one and the same.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.