Search-and-rescue work continues in Surfside as deaths rise to 9; officials vow to get to bottom of condo collapse

By: - June 27, 2021 2:16 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis briefs the press on search-and-rescue efforts at the remains of the Champlain Tower South disaster in Surfside on June 72, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

State and local officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, said Sunday that learning what caused the collapse of a 12-story condo building in Surfside must take a back seat, for now, to continuing search-and-rescue efforts, but stressed that they are determined to understand what happened.

Miami Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava confirmed that the number of deaths has reached nine. Four have been identified and their survivors notified. Family members are briefed several times per day. Volunteer Florida, a state agency, is helping to coordinate assistance. Some 150 people are listed as missing.

“We want, obviously, to get a definitive explanation of what happened and to see what the proper response would be either from the local or state level or even both,” DeSantis said.

“Now, this building was built in the early ’80s. You know, South Florida has some of the most stringent building codes in the country, and so I have a lot of confidence that what’s being built in the here and now are being done very, very well and they would be resistant not only to a thing like this but storms, which we, obviously, are very prone to,” he said.

“It’s something the state has taken very, very seriously but, particularly, South Florida has taken very seriously.”

Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in the Miami suburb of Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed on June 24, 2021. Credit: Wikipedia.

But the “core” imperatives right now are the search for survivors and assistance to displaced people, DeSantis continued.

“But I do think it’s important we get a definitive explanation,” he said.

Miami Dade County Commission Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz seconded that point.

“Once we understand, I am guaranteeing you legislation will be taking place so this will never happen again,” Diaz said.

The Miami Herald reported on Saturday that an engineer had identified a major design error at the Champlain Towers South structure in 2018 that might have allowed rainwater to undermine the building’s foundation.

Miami Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava praised both the state and federal governments for their assistance.

The county is deploying six to eight squads at any time, assisted by dogs, cameras, and sonar, she said. Workers have cut a trench into the pile measuring 125 feet in length, 20 feet wide, and 40 feet deep, which revealed four bodies and additional human remains, Cava said.

In response to a reporter’s question, DeSantis denied that his deployment of 50 state police officers to the Texas-Mexico boarder has left the Surfside response weakened.

“Those would not be people that would deploy in this situation. Those are, like, Highway Patrol, fish and wildlife, that would have nothing to do with this. And, so, any type of connection you’re making is totally wrong and political,” he said.

The Miami Dade Fire Department is among the best in the world and hasn’t needed state resources, but the state is ready to deploy teams if needed, DeSantis said. However, Israel and Mexico has sent teams to assist, officials said.

Debris is being taken to a warehouse for assessment of any forensic evidence, the governor said.

Officials have offered alternative housing to residents of an identical condo tower nearby, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said.

“I’m not sure everybody’s going to take advantage of that, but that is the state of affairs right now,” Burkett said.

As of Day 4 of the operation, officials have brought in heavy equipment but Fire Chief Alan Cominsky acknowledged that progress is slow even as his teams work shifts around the clock.

Rescue teams are not finding air pockets in which survivors may remain alive, the fire chief said.

“The debris fill scattered throughout, and its compacted — extremely compacted. So, it’s a very slow process where we have to shore, we have to stabilize the best we can as we’re moving through the area. Because, again, if there is a void space, we want to make sure we give every possibility for survivors,” Cominsky said.

He expressed regret that the search for survivors and information about the dead is coming in so slowly. Families “want to know information. They need to know information. But it is a slow process, and it’s a process that has to be done the way its being done. I know that’s difficult, but that is the way it is.”

Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said FEMA search and rescue teams are ready to come to Florida if and when state and local responders call upon them.

DeSantis, a Republican, praised the Biden administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for its assistance. FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell attended the news briefing.

FEMA is already registering people who need assistance, she said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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