Florida officials halted search and rescue work Saturday at the site of a partially collapsed condo building as they prepare to raze what remains standing over concerns that the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa could trigger a secondary collapse, potentially endangering rescue workers.
Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told family members of the 121 missing people that rescue work stopped Saturday afternoon, news that one relative described as “devastating.”
Demolition crews have begun boring holes for explosives into the concrete of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Jadallah said the demolition won’t happen until Monday, at the earliest.
“If the building is taken down, this will protect our search and rescue teams, because we don’t know when it could fall over,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said earlier Saturday at a news conference, describing the "structurally unsound" remnants of damaged building as "tottering."
“And, of course, with these gusts, potentially that would create a really severe hazard,” added DeSantis, who, after meeting with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, said officials are confident what's left of the building can likely be brought down Sunday with minimal interruption of ongoing search and rescue efforts.
Officials on Saturday said the death toll from the June 24 collapse increased to 24 victims during the overnight hours, and that 124 people remain unaccounted for.
Once the building has been brought down, Jadallah said the debris will be removed quickly to give rescuers access for the first time to parts of the garage area that are a focus of interest, possibly providing a clearer picture of pockets that may exist in the rubble and may harbor survivors.
Elsa was downgraded Saturday from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm as it barreled past the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, menacing Haiti and the Dominican Republic with driving rain and winds of up to 110 kph (70 mph).
Florida remained in Elsa's "cone of uncertainty." The Orlando Sentinel reported that the storm's projected path placed it near the Florida Keys by 2 a.m. Tuesday, and from there it was expected to move along Florida's western coast, passing Tampa by 2 a.m. Wednesday. DeSantis issued a state of emergency for Miami-Dade and 13 other counties Saturday morning.
Miami-Dade officials refused to take any chances.
"We have no control over where it lands," said Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky, echoing concerns of regional officials who've worked closely with demolition experts who initially thought safe removal of the remaining, unstable structure could take weeks.
"The fear was that [Elsa] may take the building down for us and take it in the wrong direction," said Burkett, Surfside's mayor.
Fire officials on Saturday said the remaining units of Champlain Towers South, which have been vacant since the collapse, will be destroyed in a controlled manner using explosive charges and no wrecking balls.
The city of North Miami Beach on Friday said the nearby Crestview Towers building was found to be structurally and electrically unsafe.
“In an abundance of caution, the city ordered the building closed immediately and the residents evacuated for their protection, while a full structural assessment is conducted and next steps are determined,” City Manager Arthur Sorey said in a statement.
The review of the building was part of an audit of buildings 40 years old and older recommended by the mayor of Miami-Dade County following last week's partial collapse of Champlain Towers South.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to about 200 family members Thursday at a Miami Beach hotel, and then he and first lady Jill Biden went from table to table, conversing with them in smaller groups, according to the White House, which said the Bidens were joined by the state's two U.S. senators, DeSantis and other Florida politicians.
Before visiting a memorial near the site of the tragedy in the oceanfront community of nearly 6,000 residents, Biden announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would provide temporary housing and other urgent needs for those made homeless by the disaster.
The president also met earlier with some of the search and rescue team members, whom he described as "under a great deal of stress."
A 2018 engineering report noted "major structural damage" to a concrete slab beneath the building's ground-floor pool and "abundant cracking" in the concrete structure of the parking garage.
Bids for millions of dollars in repair work were still pending when the building collapsed.
The president announced that the National Institute of Standards and Technology would try to determine why the building crumpled.
No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the June 24 collapse.
Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.