Surfside mayor navigates challenges, tragedy

Charles W. Burkett, a University alumnus, is serving his third term as mayor of Surfside. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Charles W. Burkett, a University alumnus, is serving his third term as mayor of Surfside. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Surfside mayor navigates challenges, tragedy

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Mayor Charles W. Burkett, a University of Miami alumnus, is leading the town of Surfside out of an unthinkable tragedy.

Charles W. Burkett has spent his entire life on the barrier island that encompasses Miami Beach, Surfside, and Bal Harbor. He prefers it that way.

Even while studying business at the University of Miami, he commuted from his parents’ Miami Beach house. Then in 1997, a historic home attracted him north to Surfside, where he is now serving a third term as mayor.

But Burkett’s devotion to the seaside town of 6,000 has magnified considerably since the Champlain Towers South condominium collapsed on June 24, taking the lives of 98 people and leaving so many others without a home. Since then, the level-headed, detail-oriented real estate developer and hobby musician has become a household name.

With Surfside thrust into the national spotlight, Burkett has been working diligently to help the town heal and to answer the question on everyone’s mind: How did the unimaginable happen?

For Don Bailey Jr., who is a broadcaster for Miami football, there was a sense of relief when he realized his old friend would be at the center of the crisis.

“As soon as it dawned on me that this was in Charlie’s town, I knew that the right man was in charge to handle it,” said Bailey, who played center for the Hurricanes in the 1980s. “I know he will do everything in his power to research it, understand it, and have a microscopic and a big picture view when needed.”

From the beginning, Burkett said he and a team of local leaders have taken the same approach.

“I just put myself in the position of someone trapped in that rubble or of a family member of a person missing,” said Burkett, who graduated in 1983 with a degree in finance. “And I was doing what I would hope anyone would do. It was full speed, a 100 percent effort, nonstop until everybody was out of the rubble. That sentiment was pervasive within the entire team—from the Miami-Dade County mayor’s office all the way through to our town staff, the fire-rescue teams, and our foreign brothers and sisters helping with the rescue.”

In the days and weeks following the collapse, Surfside became the epicenter of a heartbreaking tragedy, as well as a crime scene—sealed off to anyone without a badge to enter the rescue and recovery compound. Along the perimeter, dozens of reporters descended on the mini city of fire rescue and police trailers, documenting each stage of the search efforts. Burkett is now on a first-name basis with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. He also hosted President Joe Biden for a meeting about the collapse, speaks to Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava daily, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis often. The mayor has also appeared on countless local and national news programs, providing updates on the massive search and rescue operation, as well as the recovery and what the future holds.

In the early morning hours of June 24, Burkett was awakened by a call from the Surfside police chief just after 2 a.m. When he arrived at the site, he could see some residents moving around in what was left of the building and rushed toward it, only to be warned to move back because the remaining tower could fall.

“As we started to move back, I noticed the search and rescue teams surging forward into the building, which was our first indication of the incredible bravery we would see in the next few weeks,” he said. “They went into the building and pulled people out not considering that the building could still collapse on them.”

From that day, Burkett started his days around 4:30 a.m. and often did not leave Surfside Town Hall, or a trailer at the Miami-Dade County Command Center near the site, until close to 9 p.m.—when one of the town’s police officers typically gave him a ride home.

Now that the daily media briefings have ended, Burkett gets home a little earlier, but his phone still chimes incessantly. All day, Burkett toggles between media interviews; meetings with the town commission, the town manager, and the police chief; and calls from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is investigating the cause of the collapse. In addition, he gets updates from forensic engineer Allyn Kilsheimer, who the town hired to scrutinize the disaster, and calls or texts from federal, state, and local elected officials.

Through the daily chaos, Burkett tries to maintain a clear head. A trait he gained, according to his friends, through building his own real estate and investment business. Burkett learned the trade from his grandparents, who began investing in commercial properties across South Florida in the 1950s. After graduating from college, he started his own company by purchasing—with his savings—and renovating an eight-unit apartment building in South Beach. Then, he continued to buy and revamp other nearby properties in what is now the Art Deco Historic District.

During his real estate career, Burkett learned a lot about construction. Despite this knowledge, the mayor said he wrangles with the same disbelief as others. How does a building just fall down?

“If you had not done one bit of maintenance for 40 years, it still should not have fallen down,” Burkett said. “There’s something much more substantial going on with that property. So, either a bomb went off, which I don’t think happened—or there’s something very, very wrong going on under the surface with respect to the support systems.”

As the recovery efforts wound down, Burkett said that he made a point not to shift his devotion away from the audience that needs his support the most—the families of the victims from the tragic collapse and the surviving residents, who are now displaced.

Burkett is still seeking answers about the tragedy. “Once we know why it fell down, we will rewrite the book on construction with respect to the issues we identify as the problems and hopefully put forward guidelines that will prevent this from ever happening again,” he said.

Although he has often been impressed with Surfside’s small town community, Burkett said the residents have really stepped up to help their neighbors through this crisis.

“I’m proud to be a small part of what’s going on around here. This is where Surfside has had an opportunity to show its love, compassion, and concern for its neighborhood and its friends,” he said. “And they’ve all been amazing. Every single resident. I haven’t had one person complain about the issue or not want to volunteer in some way to help.”

Burkett said that he did not aspire to be a politician. But in 2004, after he had some professional success, he felt it was time to give back to his community. That’s when he ran for mayor the first time. He lost by just a handful of votes but ran again in 2006 and won.

And Burkett appears to have thrived in the role. Mareni Starre, a real estate broker associate and longtime Surfside resident, met Burkett when he was campaigning and knocked on her door. She said Burkett has not only helped beautify the community but cares about its residents, too.

“He is conscientious, humble, and approachable. And I’m very happy he is mayor,” said Starre, who also volunteers for the Surfside Police Department’s Board of Trustees.

Bailey, a former NFL player, first met Burkett at Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School in Miami and reconnected with him at the University. Later, when Bailey went into the family flooring business, he often worked with Burkett at properties.

“There’s a fairness he carries with him that he wants what’s best for the situation and for the people involved,” Bailey said. “I never once got the impression that Charlie does anything for notoriety. He is really trying to help and make a difference, and I think that is rare to find in today’s world.”