SURFSIDE, Fla. — A 7-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter was among two additional bodies found overnight in the rubble of the collapsed condo building outside Miami, raising the death toll to 20 with 128 people still missing.
“This tragedy has haunted so many of us because so many of us know someone who was in the building or affected by this tragedy,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said Friday at a news conference. “Now, not only do we know someone, but this is someone who is a member of our family, of our fire family.”
The father was not involved in the recovery process, but he voluntarily joined the search, officials said, hoping he could help find his daughter and others still missing in the wreckage. The Miami Herald reported the father kept vigil for eight nights after his daughter’s home collapsed into the rubble.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava called the night “uniquely difficult” for first responders.
“Please keep all of them in your thoughts and prayers,” she said. “They truly represent the very best in all of us and we need to be there for them as they are there for us.”
Meanwhile, rescue and recovery teams are closely monitoring Hurricane Elsa as officials warn the area may see tropical storm force winds as early as midday Sunday.
Here’s what we know Friday:
Florida has hands-off approach to condo regulations
Except for a brief window that lasted barely two years, the state has had no oversight of the condition of aging condominium buildings in nearly 60 years of condo construction in the Sunshine State.
No post-construction inspection requirements. No enforcement measures to repair potentially life-threatening structural damage. No requirement to maintain a contingency fund for emergency repairs.
A USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida review of state statutes governing the condo industry found those gaps and other deficiencies.
“There are no regulations,” said Eric Glazer, a Hallandale lawyer with 30 years of condo law experience.
That’s because the Florida Legislature is reluctant to pass laws that slow down condominium construction and sales, says Glazer, who also has a condo blog and weekly one-hour radio show about condominium law.
“Florida will do anything to help developers build and sell units and all responsibility is passed onto the unit owners after the sale,” Glazer said. “There is almost a hands-off approach when it comes to structural integrity.” Read more.
— Jeffrey Schweers, Capital Bureau USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
Hurricane Elsa hampers rescue efforts
Friday morning, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said on-site teams are preparing for potential tropical storm force winds and heavy rainfall that may come as early as midday Sunday. Atlantic tropical storms pack maximum sustained surface winds of 39 to 73 mph.
DeSantis said he is putting together a potential emergency order.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service will be on site to Friday to brief the search teams, Levine Cava said.
Robert Molleda, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, said Elsa should emerge off the coast of Cuba by Sunday night or Monday morning.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in the forecast: how it will evolve, how the storm will interact with the land areas that are to our south,” Molleda said.
“And that could affect not only the intensity, or how strong the storm is, but also the track that it takes,” he added.
Possible severe weather may further delay search and rescue efforts, Kevin Guthrie of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said earlier this week. His team is working with the National Hurricane Center and state meteorologists to develop contingency plans for severe weather.
Rescuers were already coping with near-daily thunderstorms and lightning, which forced suspensions of rescue efforts.
Heavy rains Thursday night led to muddy conditions and pools of water in the streets and parking lots surrounding the collapse site on Friday. More rain is expected to move in early Friday afternoon through the evening, creating even more dangerous situations for rescuers.
Extensive concrete damaged found last fall, but repair efforts were suspended
In a summary of work performed in October by Morabito Consultants, the company reported extensive concrete deterioration and corrosion of reinforcement at Champlain Towers South. It discovered several issues, including potentially deep deterioration of concrete near the pool area.
Full restoration and repair work “could not be performed” because the pool “was to remain in service for the duration of the work” and because the necessary aggressive excavation of concrete at the pool “could affect the stability of the remaining adjacent concrete constructions.”
Experts cautioned it’s unlikely the findings in the report reveal the root cause of the building collapse, which remains unknown. However, documents obtained by USA TODAY reveal new clues about the building’s dramatic state of disrepair.
This report included issues with the wall and edge of the swimming pool, a deteriorated stair column, core samples of the building’s structural concrete slab, holes cut to investigate problems with soffits over the garage and demolition of deteriorated concrete in balcony soffits and stucco.
Of these, only two actual repairs were done: of the deteriorating stair column and removal of deteriorated concrete and stucco from the balconies.
Rescue efforts resume after temporary pause; potential demolition
Work restarted Thursday afternoon after a 14-hour pause due to concerns about the stability of the part of the building still standing. On-site engineers had identified one column that had shifted 6 to 12 inches and three cracks were expanding.
Levine Cava said Thursday that plans were underway for the “likely” demolition of this portion of the remaining building. But experts said it could be a while before there’s a timeline for demolition.
FEMA’s search and rescue incident support team was working with local officials to look at different plans for demolishing the remaining structure, said Scott Nachman, the team’s structure specialist.
In a “best-case scenario,” it would take weeks to establish a demolition timeline, he said.
With Hurricane Elsa speeding toward Florida, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he wants to fast-track the possible demolition of the remaining section of Champlain Towers South.
“In most cases, setting up for a demolition is a time-consuming effort in testing and making that sure it doesn’t have asbestos. There’s a list of things that you do. But we’ve got a potential hurricane coming that’s going to demolish it for us,” Burkett said.
“And if that happens — and it just happens to blow it the wrong direction — it could be a mess of immense proportion,” he added.
Survivors worry about missing pets
The Friends of Miami Animals Foundation set up a hotline soon after the Surfside building collapsed last Thursday so that people who had to evacuate or were rescued could report their pets missing or ask for medical assistance and boarding for their animals.
Since then, there have been around 100 calls, said Yolanda Berkowitz, founder and president of the Friends of Miami Animals Foundation. So far, several parakeets, at least three cats, a guinea pig and a dog have been officially reported missing.
Many of the calls also come from people upset with what they perceive as limited animal rescue efforts. People have also volunteered to go into the evacuated buildings themselves and attempt a rescue.
“Animals are a priority, but you can’t put people at risk to go up to a balcony and set a cat trap,” Berkowitz told USA TODAY, adding that the first responders must also be kept safe.
“My guess is they’re only doing what they have to do to recover bodies and help people,” Berkowitz added. “I know if [the first responders] had seen any animals they would have attempted to get them out.”
Mexican search-and-rescue team Los Topos Azteca not utilized
The Mexican search-and-rescue team Los Topos Azteca flew to Florida earlier this week to assist with search and rescue missions. But they haven’t been utilized.
“I know we made arrangements, unfortunately, for them to come out that one day and it was unsuccessful,” said Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky.
Cominsky said Friday while the team did “come out” one day, they didn’t actually work on the site. He said it’s the result of a “disconnect” between Los Topos and on-the-ground officials and responders.
Cominsky added that he is not deploying additional international resources to rescue efforts right now. He said he doesn’t want to add any international resources to the efforts when he doesn’t know if members of Los Topos are going to remain in Surfside.
The experts who are part of the Israeli Defense Forces have been allowed to help. Cominsky said that’s because they were there before and he believes their services were arranged through elected officials.
“I definitely appreciate them coming out and offering their efforts but it’s a very, very delicate scene, an ongoing scene and so that’s why they haven’t been utilized,” Cominsky said.
Remembering those who died
Of the 20 people confirmed dead, authorities released these names: Stacie Fang, 54; Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, his wife Anaely Rodriguez, 42, and their daughters Lucia Guara, 10, and Emma Guara, 4; Frank Kleiman, 55; Michael Davis Altman, 50; Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife, Christina Beatriz Elvira de Oliwkowicz, 74; Luis Bermudez, 26, and his mother, Ana Ortiz, 46; Antonio Lozano, 83, and his wife Gladys Lozano, 79; Manuel LaFont, 54; and Hilda Noriega, 92.
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, Jennifer Sangalang and Ginny Beagan, USA TODAY; Rick Neale, Florida Today; Jesse Mendoza, Herald-Tribune; Wendy Rhodes, Palm Beach Post; Maya Lora, The Lakeland Ledger; Katherine Lewin, Florida Times-Union; The Associated Press