On Covering the Surfside Disaster

Disasters bring out the best in people and the worst in people. There are acts of bravery and compassion, as well as knavery and selfishness. Those who, on hearing of a tragedy, drop everything and rush to the scene to help, and those who find ways to exploit the suffering of others.

The disaster at Surfside, Florida, is no exception. Search and rescue teams from Miami-Dade and across the state streamed to the site, soon joined by delegations from Mexico and Israel.

These are people renowned for their high level of professionalism. The Miami-Dade team has an enviable reputation for excellence. The Israelis, of course, bring with them a wealth of skill and experience from emergency operations in many countries. The group from Mexico, known as Los Topos, Spanish for “the moles,” are literally heroes in their home country, who are cheered upon their arrival at disaster scenes.

All told, more than 400 rescue workers have arrived at the scene where the collapsed condominium complex has left 16 people killed and at least 140 still missing and feared dead as of this writing.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of them as mere technicians, human digging machines, who face the rubble with their microwave radar, sonar and sniffing dogs and turn their backs on those around them.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett spoke on ABC of the dedication involved: “We are working 24-hours a day nonstop, nothing else on our mind, with the only objective of pulling their family members out of that rubble safely. That’s what we’re doing and we’re not going to stop doing that, not today, not tomorrow, not the next day. We’re going to keep going until everybody is out.”

“It’s very personal. These guys work 12-hour cycles. I see them coming off the pile at 12 noon and they are spent, and they’re working their way back down to their tents,” Dave Downey, the former Miami-Dade fire chief who now chairs the Urban Search and Rescue Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told AP.

“They get cleaned up. They get a little bit of food. A few hours later, I’m talking to my guys. They say, ‘We’re ready to go, chief. Put us in. We want to get to work.’”

Crew members also make themselves available to answer questions from the families and explain what they are doing. They recognize there is more to their job than digging, vital as that is.

Unfortunately, there is another side to the story, as well.

It was pointed out by Gabriel Groisman, the Mayor of Bal Harbour, in a tweeted message on Sunday: “Dear Media: The dignity and privacy of the families of the Surfside Building Collapse is worth MUCH MORE than the clicks you can get from photographing them suffering and mourning. Please show some respect and stop clicking your cameras every time you see them.”

We live in an era when the word “privacy” has come to mean the digital kind, as much as the traditional kind. The shift in meaning reflects the erosion of the very concept of privacy and personal dignity. People today are willing to expose themselves and their private lives in ways that would have been unthinkable not many years ago.

A species of mindlessness prevails. The attitude seems to be, however unspoken, that if I have no sense of dignity, then others probably don’t either. If I don’t mind being photographed in almost any situation, why should they? Even in the most terrible moments of their lives. The right to privacy has somehow been replaced by the right to click.

The media is much to blame for this. Their generally unrestrained attitude has seeped into the general consciousness. Everyone else’s life is public fare. In addition to professional journalists, legions of amateur reporters are constantly snapping pictures of others without taking their feelings into consideration.

Journalism has an important role in a free society. The constant probing and questioning of public officials helps to keep them honest and accountable to their constituents. The public has a right to know what the politicians are doing with their tax money and their votes. And press conferences and photo-ops are by mutual consent.

But the right to know does not — or at least should not — intrude on purely personal matters.

How much more so when it concerns ordinary citizens. Unlike public officials and celebrities, these grieving families did not seek anybody’s attention, and did not forfeit their right to privacy when they went to the disaster site to stand watch, hoping for news of their loved ones.

There are more than enough moving pictures of the mountain of rubble, the rescue crews, heavy equipment, and so on. The suffering family members must be given the privacy that they deserve.