Search crews are hunting for survivors in newly accessible areas of debris at the site of the collapsed condominium building in Surfside, Fla., even as rain, lightning and an impending tropical storm hindered efforts Monday night.
Although the most damaging parts of Tropical Storm Elsa were expected to swoop around the western side of the Florida peninsula this week, the National Weather Service warned of potentially dangerous flooding and tornadoes in Miami-Dade County on Monday evening. Winds between 40 and 50 mph were reported, and the forecast said they could push debris onto roads or disrupt electricity. Flooding and “potential for a few tornadoes” also could complicate the rescue effort.
As of Monday night, the death toll in the condo collapse had risen to 28, with 117 people unaccounted for. Ingrid Ainsworth, 66, and Tzvi Ainsworth, 68, were among the dead identified Monday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said during a news conference Monday morning that identifying victims could happen more rapidly after the remaining portion of Champlain Towers South was demolished Sunday. The newly accessible areas crews searched Monday were where many master bedrooms were located, he said, possibly clearing the way to find people who were asleep when the building fell.
Emergency personnel had paused their operations Saturday and Sunday while the site was readied for demolition. The removal — which had been expected to take weeks to approve and conduct — had been hastened as Elsa loomed in the Atlantic.
As officials prepared for the demolition Sunday, some residents and animal activists urged them to delay, fearing that pets left behind in the building could be lost in the blast. Local leaders said authorities have checked the building again and again, using drones and infrared imaging technology, but have not found animals.
“We have done absolutely everything possible to locate any animals left in the building, and our first responders have put themselves at great risk in their search efforts,” Levine Cava said.
Shortly before the building was razed Sunday, a Champlain Towers South resident asked the court to allow her to enter her unit to search for her lost pet before the demolition. The judge denied the request, and the building came down minutes later.
Other survivors have worried about losing family heirlooms, wedding rings, photographs — all the things they left behind as they fled more than a week ago. “Those who were forced to evacuate the remaining portion of the building left their entire lives behind,” Levine Cava said Sunday.
The weight of life’s artifacts left behind in the large pile where the building once stood is still heavy for people who escaped before the collapse, DeSantis said Monday.
“This is a really harrowing experience,” he said. “You literally have people where, had their unit been 20 feet another direction, they would’ve been in rubble and their neighbor hasn’t been heard from again.”
Friends and family members of 23-year-old nanny Leidy Luna Villalba are among the hundreds who have waited days for updates about their loved one.
Villalba’s mother, Juana Villalba, has clutched a rosary until her knuckles have turned white as her other loved ones — spanning Paraguay and Argentina — continue sharing their prayers on Facebook.
“The reality is that it’s becoming more difficult,” Sonia Orihuela, one of Luna’s cousins, told The Washington Post. “The possibilities of finding her alive are evaporating. Too many days have gone by, but God is great.”
Golan Vach, commander of the Israeli National Rescue Unit, told CNN’s “New Day” on Monday that he relayed a grim probability to families of condo residents — that chances for finding someone alive are “close to zero.” “I’m realistic, but we are still full of hope,” he said. “Hope keeps us very active.”
Those who survived are left with their memories and a push to find resources and shelter after the razing.
Andreas King-Geovanis, managing partner of Sextant Stays in Sunny Isles, is offering comfort for the displaced and the families awaiting news.
King-Geovanis opened up his vacation rental, about four miles north of Surfside, to survivors of the collapse. He says the spot is full, with 15 families — about 50 or 60 people total.
One family left for Houston on Monday with the remains of a family member, he said, and another took their place in the Sextant.
“We have people who aren’t from Surfside, but they are family members of victims who are here hoping to hear good news,” he said. “But as they find bodies, people are getting the remains and heading back home.”
King-Geovanis said he plans to keep his place open for the rest of July and possibly longer.
As more families take DNA swabs to identify their loved ones lost in the pieces that once made Champlain Towers South, more are leaving with less.
“They’re not getting full bodies. They’re having to find what they can, and identify through DNA,” he said. “That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is no closure, and you don’t know where they died, how they died. Was it instant or slow? I think uncertainty is what’s creating all the agony.”
As the search continues, some people have begun demanding accountability.
Four lawsuits have been filed — some on behalf of missing residents and others on behalf of survivors. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle (D) has said a grand jury will examine the case, but details of that empaneling have not been released.
After Harold Rosenberg — who lived in Unit 212 — disappeared along with his daughter and son-in-law Malky and Benny Weisz, Rosenberg’s relatives filed a lawsuit against the condominium association, Morabito Consultants and SD Architects on June 30, the Miami Herald reported.
That lawsuit comes after survivor Raysa Rodriguez detailed her harrowing escape and said the association’s “reckless and negligent conduct caused a catastrophic deadly collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.”
In filing the complaint, Rodriguez is seeking class-action status to represent all of those who were affected by the collapse. She is asking the court to help preserve evidence.
However, a spokesperson for the condo association told The Post that the “focus remains on caring for our friends and neighbors during this difficult time.”
Reis Thebault in Washington and Brittany Shammas in Florida contributed to this report.