MIAMI (CBSMiami) — As the grim work of clearing the site and identifying the remains of those who died in the Surfside condo collapse enters its third week, there has been one constant since the beginning of this tragedy – the daily public briefings by Miami Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

This was not the job she envisioned when she ran for mayor last year, but when she sat down with CBS4’s Jim DeFede, she said she is focused on the work ahead even as she reflected on the pain and sorrow of the past few weeks.

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Here is part of the conversation that aired on Facing South Florida.

DeFede: When you arrive on scene, what do you see?

Levine Cava: You know, the morning was a blur, I have to say. Obviously I’m in disbelief, I’m checking out exactly what’s going on with the operation, I’m informed about all the people who have been rescued, of course and they are already in the pile, they’re in the rubble. And they’re explaining to me what’s going on at the site.

DeFede: What was your first reaction when you finally saw the pile?

Levine Cava: This site was like Armageddon, something unimaginable. What I had seen on the news and photos I had seen did not do it justice. To see twelve stories of the building collapse pancake style on itself. And to see people on the mound, beginning this horrific search, took my breath away.

DeFede: Your first instinct is to want to go be with the family.

Levine Cava: If I could have dug, I would have dug. But that was not my job. My job was to make sure that everything was being done for everybody in this disaster.

DeFede: What’s the hardest moment been so far through this Surfside crisis?

Levine Cava: Talking to the families is really the hardest part, it could be my children, it could be any one of our children and grandparents, sisters, best friends. We do all know people in that building. It’s inconsolable. What do you say to people who want to know why – it’s impossible, impossible.

DeFede: Is there one interaction that stands out in your mind that lives on that you had. In other words, is there one interaction that you had with a family member that still haunts you?

Levine Cava: You know there have been so many of those moments, there was a moment that I broke down in tears myself. A young man who has been inconsolable looking for answers with his friend and the two of them consoling each other – just the despair, the despair.

DeFede: As we’re sitting here talking, these dump trucks are going by. They are being brought in to gather up the rubble. Take it somewhere so it can be analyzed. But basically, this is in many ways, these dump trucks are like hearses, you know, carrying off, to some extent, those who died here.

Levine Cava: So, for example, I had to decide where will we put that evidentiary debris. I had to decide what company would truck that debris. The way this is being treated is like holy ground. A Rabbi referred to it, he said, ‘The pile has the same significance to this community as the schul or the temple in this area that so many belonged to. It’s a site of reverence.’ And that is how the people on the pile treat it and that is how we treat everything that comes off that pile.

DeFede: You come out here every day at about 7:00 a.m.

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Levine Cava:  Yes.

DeFede: And you leave around what time?

Levine Cava: 8:00 p.m.

DeFede: When you go home. When you sit down. After 13, 14 hours, however long it is out here and you’re alone with your thoughts. Where do they turn?

Levine Cava: Well, I have been haunted by images of people in the rubble, the pile. I go over and over it at night, watching people searching, searching, digging. It’s a very very powerful image.

Levine Cava:  I am really focused on what is happening here. And the future, we’re preparing to talk about the future, but I’m focused here.

DeFede: But Madam Mayor you’re human, and we saw the other day during one of the press conferences. You had, you had a moment, where you had to hold it together. I would imagine away from the cameras, away from the press conference, alone in your house. You don’t have to be as guarded, have you cried a lot during these last 14, 15, 16 days?

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava participates in a press briefing around the site of the collapsed building in Miami-Dade County(Photo by Monica McGivern/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Levine Cava: You know Jim I cry, I cry. I hug, a lot of hugs, Yesterday I attended a concert and it created a space for just sitting with those feelings, which I’ve really not had a chance to do because I’m working until I fall to sleep. And from the moment I wake up in the morning. And we are working, not so much for me, but for all those affected, especially those pulling bodies out of the rubble and we know the toll it is taking on them and we need to find a path to help people.

DeFede:  hen do you think it’s going to hit you what happened out here. Because I don’t think it’s hit you yet, the enormity of it. When does that come?

Levine Cava: Jim it hit me, it’s in me. I feel it for sure every moment when I’m busy doing my work, from the moment I awake to the moment I go to sleep. I’m busy doing what needs to be done.

DeFede: This couldn’t have been what you envisioned being Mayor was going to be like, you came in knowing about COVID, that was going to be a major crisis, you were going to have to deal with. You then had a series of mass shootings. Which took you to the White House just the day before and now this.

Levine Cava: Miami Dade County has had so many challenges, I ran for Mayor because I thought I could handle those challenges. This particular challenge, no never in my wildest nightmares. But I know we are going to have to continue to deal with all kinds of crises. And so in that sense I kicked into gear.

DeFede: So you never thought to yourself, I did not sign up for this, this is this is not the job. I wanted to go cut some ribbons, do some nice things, you know.

Levine Cava: No sir, no sir, I came to this job to do the hard work of leading a community through difficult times. We have sea level rise, climate change, storms that are going to come with increasing frequency, ZIKA. I started to run before there was a pandemic and I stayed. So I, I, I know that as mayor there is going to be a lot of disaster and I signed up for it.

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Click here to watch Jim DeFede’s entire interview with Mayor Daniella Levine Cava on Facing South Florida.

CBSMiami.com Team