Photo Credit: United Hatzalah
Israeli United Hatzalah volunteers in Surfside, Florida, June 27, 2021

Monday marked the fifth day of a vast search-and-rescue effort for about 150 people who are still missing in the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South, as two more bodies were recovered, bringing the known death toll to 11. The two are Frank Kleiman and Michael David Altman, both 50.

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The Miami-Dade Police Department identified two more Jewish victims who were found on Saturday, Leon Oliwkowicz and Christina Beatriz Elvira.

Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told reporters that the rescue efforts are complex and dangerous, noting that “every time there’s an action, there’s a reaction,” so “it’s not an issue of we could just attach a couple of cords to a concrete boulder and lift it and call it a day,” which is why “it’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a 12-story building.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett assured the press on Monday that officials would investigate the reasons for the collapse, but for now, he added, it’s “an issue for another day.” For now, according to the mayor, the priorities are searching for survivors and supporting the families of the dead and missing.

Florida’s chief financial officer and state fire marshal Jimmy Patronis said this was the largest deployment of local, state, and federal resources in Florida history that were not related to a hurricane. In fact, he noted that the last time these many government agencies and workers were involved in a search and rescue operation was in 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 hurricane that hit 12 counties.

United Hatzalah of Israel was dispatched to Florida on Saturday night, together with a team of the IDF’s Home Front Command and Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai. The flight was paid for by El Al Airlines.

The United Hatzalah team of six specialists from its Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit (PCRU) met with local community leaders to find out the needs of their community. The team joined a Zoom meeting that included more than 20 leaders of relief organizations, social workers, and therapists that put together a plan of action for the different groups to work together in synch. Miriam Singer, President and CEO of the Jewish Community Services of South Florida (JCSFL) moderated the meeting that included, in addition to the Israeli teams, local synagogue leaders, community leaders, and representatives from Cadena, Chai Lifeline, Mt. Sinai Hospital, JCSFL, Miami Jewish Health, The Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Chabad of South Florida, the Children’s Bereavement Center, Repair The World, and Hatzalah of South Florida.

Dovie Maisel, a United Hatzalah official who leads its mission in Surfside, told the Journal of Emergency Medical Services that “the worst thing operationally is to create a situation where dozens of care and assistance groups come in and all start trying to do therapy on a single individual or a few different individuals but end up traumatizing them, due to the number of times that person would have to repeat the story over and over and over again to people from different organizations. This would create a secondary trauma for the person instead of helping them. This is why we must coordinate and map out who needs help and where before we dive in.”

Israeli animal-assisted therapist Batya Jaffe on the job, June 27,2021 / United Hatzalah

Batya Jaffe, an Israeli animal-assisted therapist who was part of the PCRU team, told JEMS that “people kept coming up to us and saying how happy they were that we arrived. They felt that now that we had come, things would start to move and they could finally get an answer as to whether or not their loved one, or ones, was still alive.”

According to Israel’s United Hatzalah spokesman Raphael Poch, his team and the IDF Home Front Command team worked side-by-side interviewing family members of the missing to ascertaining information about the layout of the collapsed tower and who lived in which apartment. They worked in small teams of two and three to catalog the details submitted by family members for the benefit of the search and rescue teams.

“The energy in the room was that of an ongoing and drawn-out trauma,” said Poch, an old friend of The Jewish Press Online. “No one in that room has closure, and that is something that they direly need. Some people flew or drove more than halfway across the country to sit in a communal room with other family members of missing people whom they don’t know, to perhaps hear good news about their loved one. Seeing the hopefulness mixed with despondency on the faces of everyone there was heartbreaking.”

Poch added: “That’s exactly the purpose of our mission with the PCRU. It’s our job to show these people that they are not alone and that they can help in the search efforts. By working with the IDF and with the PCRU they provided essential information that may help lead to more rescues. In addition, we reminded people that they were not alone, and they would not go through this tragedy alone. They had literally hundreds of people going through the exact same thing right next to them. We, therefore, encouraged people to comfort one another and be there for one another. That in of itself is a type of healing and something which we can all do.”

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.