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Rescuers fight weather as search efforts continue nearly 2 weeks after Fla. building collapse

Death toll rises to 36 confirmed; 109 people are unaccounted for

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced on July 6 that there are now 36 confirmed deaths from the Surfside, Fla., condominium collapse. (Video: The Washington Post)
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SURFSIDE, Fla. — Hundreds of search-and-rescue workers fended off rain and wind from Hurricane Elsa on Tuesday as they continued to look for remains and — a remote possibility now — survivors at the site of a collapsed condominium building.

The death toll increased to 36 after eight victims were found on Tuesday; 29 have been identified, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D) said. She said 109 people are unaccounted for at Champlain Towers South, though not all are confirmed to have been in the building when it fell.

“We know that waiting for news is unbearable,” she said on the 13th day of the search.

Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky said the weekend demolition of a still-standing portion of the condo has had a “significant impact” on recovery efforts, giving crews access to new areas of the rubble. Workers have removed 5 million pounds of concrete from the site, authorities said, and “evidentiary debris” is being carefully labeled, sorted and warehoused in the longer-term search for answers.

But the mission is still complicated by Elsa, with officials saying that wind forced a pause in search efforts early Tuesday. Hope of finding survivors has also dimmed nearly two weeks after the disaster.

“We’re definitely searching,” Cominsky said at a news conference. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing anything positive.” Col. Golan Vach, who is leading an Israel Defense Forces team helping in Surfside, said Tuesday on CNN that there is now “close to zero” chance of finding someone alive.

Parts of Florida and the Southeast are in line for heavy rain and strong winds as Elsa sweeps north from Cuba over the next several days. Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez (R) said the storm was expected to make landfall Wednesday morning, with winds potentially hitting 60 mph. The National Hurricane Center said Tuesday night that storm surge and hurricane warnings were in effect for parts of Florida’s west coast as Elsa again reached hurricane strength.

Flooding and “potential for a few tornadoes” also could complicate the search effort. Nuñez said that the area, which experienced winds up to 20 mph from Elsa’s outer bands, was anticipating an increase in flash-flood conditions, and she urged Floridians to make preparations to potentially be without power “for a few days.” Miami has seen several inches of rain since Monday.

In the closest glimpse officials have publicly allowed media, broken concrete, twisted metal and debris could be seen where Champlain Towers South once stood. (Video: The Washington Post)

Despite the weather, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has said that victim identifications could speed up since the removal of the remaining condo structure.

The demolition, which was fast-tracked as Elsa neared, proceeded after an unsuccessful 11th-hour legal bid by an animal rights advocate to search the still-standing structure for a pet. Judge Michael Hanzman of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida said at an emergency hearing Sunday night that he would not “second-guess the wisdom” of officials who said they thoroughly searched for animals before moving ahead to demolish the unstable structure. At a hearing on Tuesday, Hanzman sharply reprimanded a lawyer for the activist, saying he had been misled to believe the woman — a Broward County resident unaffiliated with Champlain Towers South — lived in the building.

While experts and investigators caution that it is too early to reach conclusions about the cause of the collapse, survivors and relatives of the dead and missing have begun filing lawsuits alleging that an engineer, the condo association, Surfside building officials and others ignored or missed warning signs before the June 24 catastrophe.

Hanzman on Tuesday asked lawyers to consider whether their firms would represent victims pro bono as he tries to assemble a “leadership structure” among the many efforts to compensate families. The case “is not business as usual,” the judge said.

Frank Morabito: What we know about structural engineer who worked with Champlain Towers South condo board

Asked Tuesday about the legal action being taken, Levine Cava said: “The whole world wants to know what happened here.”

“I think it will be a while until everything is understood,” she said.

Officials are rushing to confirm the safety of other buildings in the area. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Tuesday evening that given the mystery still hanging over the failure of Champlain Towers South, his office will soon send out a letter to “all of our oceanfront condo boards and building owners” with steps that experts think “should be taken as a minimum stopgap measure to provide residents with a basic level of confidence that their building is not obviously unsafe.”

“This is clearly only an interim step” pending findings from investigators with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he said, which may take “quite a while.”

A spokesman for Vice Mayor Pete Cabrera of Doral, Fla., told The Washington Post on Tuesday that Cabrera wants the city to review the work of all projects involving Ross Prieto. Prieto was Surfside’s building official in 2018, when he allegedly told the Champlain Towers South condo association that the property was “in very good shape.” Prieto was working as Doral’s temporary building official until last week when his employer, the contractor C.A.P. Government, said he “was on a leave of absence.”

Brett Marcy — a spokesman for Morabito Consultants, whose engineer Frank Morabito had found problems with the building — has defended the firm in a statement. “Morabito Consultants did their job, just as they have done for nearly four decades — providing expert structural engineering counsel and services,” Marcy said. “And they will continue to work with the investigating authorities to understand why this structure failed, so that such a catastrophic event can never happen again.”

The scene at the collapse site was quiet Tuesday afternoon as rain drenched Surfside, leaving pools of water collecting in the streets. Thunder and lightning occasionally cracked across the gray sky. All that was left of the portion of the condo demolished Sunday was a heap of rubble higher than a street sign for Collins Avenue.

A typically busy memorial wall was devoid of people, save for police officers in long rain jackets. At a church blocks from the collapse, mourners sang “Amazing Grace” at a funeral for the Guara family.

Pink and purple ribbons adorned the white casket holding 10-year-old Lucia and 4-year-old Emma Guara. Two other caskets held parents Marcus Guara and Anaely Rodriguez. After the Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church, people filed out into the rain and embraced, some wiping away tears.

St. Joseph, which calls itself the “Parish at Ground Zero,” has nearly 30 congregants unaccounted for after the collapse. Tuesday’s Mass was the first related to the condo disaster, Archdiocese of Miami spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said.

Miami-Dade police on Tuesday publicly identified three more of the dead: Nancy Kress Levin, 76; Jay Kleiman, 52; and Francis Fernandez, 67.

Levine Cava did not say Tuesday when the rescue efforts for those unaccounted for would change to a recovery mission, but she told reporters that family members still waiting for information on their loved ones “know what’s happening.”

“I think everybody will be ready when it’s time to move to the next phase,” she said.

As reporters toured the collapse site Tuesday evening — in the closest glimpse authorities have publicly allowed the media — machinery toiled atop a towering heap of broken concrete and twisted metal. Rubble spilled out onto Collins Avenue.

All that remained standing on the condo grounds was a hedge embankment lining the sidewalk, a lone black lamppost and the wall with the outline of what originally said “CHAMPLAIN TOWERS 8777 SOUTH.”

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report. Bella reported from New Jersey. Knowles reported from San Jose.

Read more:

As storm approaches, rescuers seek survivors and families seek closure

How Champlain Towers South fell and what it reveals about possible causes

Elsa nears hurricane strength as rain and wind lash Florid