Michael Capponi’s relief group in Surfside after collapse
Two days after fleeing her Champlain Towers apartment, Zulia Taub, 82, was walking on Collins Avenue when her daughter tried a phone number for a Miami relief agency offering help for survivors of the Surfside collapse.
The group’s founder, Michael Capponi, answered on the other end of the call and his instructions were simple: Stay there.
“He met us on the street,” Taub recalled in an interview Thursday. “He gave us a box. He gave us a hug. And he gave us $1,500. On the street.”
Capponi’s handing a $1,500 Visa gift card to Taub represented one strand in a safety net that popped up around the Champlain Towers collapse, as local charities, faith groups, businesses and international organizations poured money and goods into the area to support survivors and families of the dead and missing.
For Capponi, the Surfside response also marks a homecoming for the one-time nightclub mogul and party-circuit notable, who now works full time running a relief organization that’s now responding to its first Miami catastrophe.
“I’ve lived in Miami since 1978. I’m pretty connected here,” said Capponi, 48, a recovered heroin addict who stepped back from a real estate career in 2019 to work full time as Global Empowerment’s director. “I know people from the building.”
Michael Capponi’s Global Empowerment Mission
Working out of a Doral warehouse, Capponi’s Global Empowerment Mission has been shipping donated relief supplies to disasters for more than a decade.
An offshoot of donation drives he used to organize at South Beach clubs, the non-profit reported $36 million in donations in 2019, according to its most recent public tax return. The bulk of that came in as donated relief supplies: baby supplies, shelf-stable meals, home-repair kits, pet food.
The document provides a snapshot of the group’s efforts and organization that year. Capponi earned $164,000 in salary running an operation that steered $34 million in cash and goods to disaster areas.
Most of that went to the Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. Another $1 million went to Puerto Rico, during the extended recovery from 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Global Empowerment also reported spending for the Venezuelan refugee crisis and wildfires in Bolivia.
The organization also listed relief efforts in Haiti and for fires in the western United States. In April, Capponi was on a boat delivering supplies in St. Vincent after a volcano erupted there.
Cash donations come from Capponi’s social media presence on Instagram, where he has 80,000 followers, and from high-profile contacts, including Global Empowerment’s partnership with former Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel’s B Strong organization.
For Capponi, who helped make the concept of reclining in a nightclub hot when he promoted B.E.D. in South Beach, wrangling donations for disasters resembles the hustle from his former career.
“When I was in entertainment, it used to be figuring out how to get on the guest list of the Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t easy,” he said. “Now that same skill set is more, ‘Do you know the prime minister of St. Vincent, and how can I get on the phone with him to get a plane in there?’”
Supporting Surfside tally: $7 million and counting
Global Empowerment reports about $330,000 in cash donations for its Surfside fund, a small portion of the money raised by the network of non-profits responding to Surfside. The groups, including the umbrella alliance supportsurfside.org, have collected roughly $7 million, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Thursday during a briefing of county commissioners.
Capponi said the Surfside dollars will all be distributed to Champlain Towers relief, with none of it covering overhead. Most of the money, he said, will go to surviving residents who lost their homes in the collapse or in the July 4 demolition of the remaining apartments.
More than $250,000 has been distributed, according to Global Empowerment’s website at globalempowermentmission.kindful.com. (To donate, click here. ) Capponi said none of the money raised for Surfside will go to overhead expenses, with all cash slated for distribution. He expects former residents to eventually receive more than $4,000 each.
In an interview this week, Steve Rosenthal said he was wearing the same T-shirt and jeans he pulled on the night of the collapse, before a fire truck bucket plucked him from his seventh-floor balcony.
He woke to what he thought was the “loudest thunderclap I ever heard in my life,” followed by shaking he then assumed was the result of a freak severe earthquake in Miami. Rosenthal thought the dust outside was smoke from a burning city. Then a neighbor shouted part of the building was gone.
‘I grabbed my phone…And the shoes I’m wearing.’
“I grabbed my phone, and my iPad and my wallet,” said Rosenthal, a 72-year-old advertising executive. He also left with some watches, and a grocery bag where he stashed two extra pairs of jeans, shirts and underwear. “And the shoes I’m wearing.”
Rosenthal was one of the residents Capponi knew personally. “He called me up, and said, ‘Steve, what can I do?” Rosenthal recalled. “When you have nothing, a $1,500 Visa gift card is like a godsend.”
For now, Rosenthal is living in a Marriott hotel room provided by the Red Cross. He said the demolition of his apartment — an emergency move authorities said was vital to reaching the remaining debris pile before declaring the rescue operation over on Wednesday — was expected. While some neighbors held out hope of being let back in the building before it fell, Rosenthal said he knew what he managed to carry out of Unit 705 would be all that was left of his home.
Now Rosenthal has to map out his next home. His insurance payout came quickly, but also diverted to an escrow account with his mortgage holder. Without the cash that would typically come from leaving an oceanfront condo, Rosenthal said he’s feeling uneasy heading into the Miami area’s tight real estate market.
“We need money,” he said. “Money to find a roof over our heads.”
Capponi, who leveraged his nightclub exposure into a second career as a developer, has turned his attention to survivor housing, too. He recruited a high-end broker, Alexander Team, to coordinate donations from developers, hotels and other building owners willing to let Champlain Tower residents move in — typically for free — on a short-term basis.
“We’ve got 30 families in there right now,” Capponi said. “Some of them are one-month, some of them are two months.” A listing sheet posted on Global Empowerment’s website of occupied and unoccupied units includes a one-bedroom unit at the W residences in South Beach, a studio apartment at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, and a single-family home in Hollywood available until August 11.
Taub, who fled Unit 506 with only her pocketbook, now lives in a friend’s vacant apartment in Sunny Isles Beach. She’s looking for a long-term home to replace the one she bought in 1995 during a career in property management and real estate. She won’t be looking at towers. “I don’t want to be in a high-rise anymore,” she said. “I’m terrified.”
She was up late reading the latest Time magazine in the early hours of June 24 when she heard what she thought was thunder, then saw dust outside she thought was rain. Then the building shook after what sounded like an explosion. Taub grabbed a flashlight, her purse and, after realizing her neighbor had already fled, headed down the stairs amid screaming and signs the building was failing. “Doors were warped,” she said. “Ceilings were cracking.”
Taub made it to the basement, and waded into the knee-deep water. With the exit unreachable, she and some neighbors headed back into the building. They made it to a third-floor balcony and flagged rescue workers. She recalled stepping onto a beach chair, then the railing on her way to a fire truck’s basket. “I said to myself: I have to stay calm,’” she said. “I said a prayer.”
The Visa card from Capponi was one of several moments of help that stunned Taub, a longtime volunteer usher at the New World Symphony and other concert halls. She left her eyeglasses behind, and a visit to a Hialeah optometrist ended in tears when the cashier wouldn’t take her money and the doctor handed her two $50 bills. The Young Israel of Bal Harbour synagogue reached out to get Taub’s sizes, then delivered new outfits to her door.
“There are a lot of good people in this world,” she said.
Seated on the sofa with Capponi in her temporary home’s living room in Sunny Isles Beach, Taub said the Champlain Towers collapse was the first time she’s received charity in her 82 years. She praised Capponi and Global Empowerment’s staff for their approach to people who need help but may feel uncomfortable getting it.
“It was not charity. It was like a friend helping friends,” she said. “I will never forget that.”