The complicated effort to recover the missing residents of a collapsed Miami-Dade County condominium building escalated in its second week, when Tropical Storm Elsa threatened to destabilize the remaining structure while search and rescue crews continued their work with more than 100 people still unaccounted for. As of July 6, the death toll was 32 deaths, with 26 of the dead identified.
A demolition team leveled the remaining structure July 4 without disturbing the recovery areas, eliminating the risk from high winds and rain and opening up new dimensions to search beneath the debris pile. County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that although some recovery efforts paused for the safety of the search and rescue teams, the effort throughout would be constant, as would attempts to look elsewhere for residents who were not home at the 12-story Champlain Towers South building the morning of June 24. Those efforts have been stymied by incomplete details provided in missing person reports.
“We know that waiting for news is unbearable,” Levine said.
“Through this grief and through this loss, the rain, the smoke and all of the other obstacles that have been thrown our way, a clear picture emerges of what it means to be American,” she said.
“The story of our nation is the story of everyday men and women who summon great strength and resolve to face incredible challenges and to do things that have never been done before. That story has been written throughout the pages of our history and now it’s being written right in Surfside.
“It’s been written by the extraordinary men and women of our search and rescue team, the first responders who ran directly into the collapsed building to pull people out, and those who’ve been risking their lives for others without pause or question for the last 11 days. It’s been written by all of those who’ve rallied and all of those who’ve come together in a time of unspeakable grief and great need.”
The county has brought cooling stations in close to the recovery site to give respite to workers, and county buses to provide shelter during breaks.
Miami-Dade County’s Community Action & Human Services Department has been coordinating operations for a family assistance center, offering services including short and long-term home assistance, travel assistance, psychological, spiritual and grief counseling, financial assistance, food and clothing assistance, funeral assistance, expediting visa, passport, insurance verification, document recovery including Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and more.
The public safety response after the 1:30 a.m. collapse was almost immediate.
“It was an outpouring of engagement, activism, sympathy and seamless professional assistance,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes the city of Surfside. “Miami-Dade was on it right away, the city of Miami Beach was on it. Broward County, Palm Beach and Monroe, it was ‘all-out’ from South Florida counties and cities.
“In a time of crisis, you really see people pull together,” she said. “Our law enforcement has been impeccable maintaining the integrity of what is a working scene of people and property.”
Heyman said that the chaos surrounding the effort to identify who is missing hammered home the importance of clear regulations around short-term rentals.
“You have to register if that’s the intent for the unit,” she said. “That’s where you have great uncertainty, where the numbers will start shifting because of the potential for what people expect from a unit, in terms of how many people normally live there and how many people we’re searching for.”
The search and rescue teams are cataloging recovered personal items and actively searching for pets.
Cava ordered an emergency audit of residential properties of five stories or higher and 40 years and older under the county’s jurisdiction, and encouraged cities to do the same. Miami-Dade and Broward counties require recertifications for 40-year-old buildings, and Palm Beach and Pinellas counties are considering adding similar measures. In Los Angeles County, Calif., Supervisor Janice Hahn sent county building inspectors to survey a multi-structure condo complex.
“My concerns are that we don’t have something happen here that we’ve been watching in Florida,” she told her local CBS affiliate.
Counties assist with Miami building collapse
It has been all hands-on deck in Miami-Dade County, Fla., following the collapse last month of a 13-story condo building in Surfside.
First responders flocked to the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building assisting crews as they searched through the debris.
Members from the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue alongside seven other task force teams from Florida and an international task force from Israel continued search and rescue efforts in the days following the collapse.
First responders removed 3 million pounds of concrete in five days as they searched through layers of debris using sonar and video equipment and search and rescue canines to identify victims. The teams consisted of more than 300 responders that operated on 12-hour shifts.
To assist with the efforts, Escambia County, Fla. deployed its Mobile Command Center or THOR to the site in Miami-Dade County.
The state of Florida requested the county’s center to assist with the recovery and rescue efforts. One county emergency management employee deployed with THOR for 10 days.
“We’re happy to go help out and we’re always willing to go help our neighboring counties and our state of Florida,” Public Safety Department Emergency Manager Eric Gilmore said.
The 52-foot trailer is pulled by a tractor and can be extended to 1,000 square feet. The interior has working space with a generator and 72 hours of fuel as well as wireless communications, cellular, satellite and VOIP phones, radio equipment and weather tracking equipment. A four-person communications room offers mobile office space with printers, scanners and other supplies.
“We can deploy it in the field or next to an incident site and use it as a forward command versus trying to be in an emergency operations center that’s removed several miles away from the incident,” Gilmore said.
He said the state is utilizing the mobile command center for operations and logistics and to identify other resources needed at the site of the building collapse in Miami-Dade County.
“It affords you the opportunity to pull right up to the incident, deploy the mobile command center and actually operate out of it,” he said.
Gilmore said the unit was last deployed within Escambia County at the Naval Air Station shooting in 2019 where FBI utilized the space for their response and investigation. Prior to 2019, the mobile command center has been deployed for hurricane responses.
“Sharing of resources is absolutely crucial to get the response first and then of course the recovery going at a much quicker pace,” he said.
Escambia County has benefited from outside resources coming to help during its own disasters, such as Hurricane Sally in 2020.
“When we can go help anybody else in the state of Florida, we love to return that help,” Gilmore said. “We know how beneficial it is and how crucial it is to share those resources.”
Fairfax County, Va. is also contributing to the emergency response at the site of the building collapse.
A member from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team also deployed to the building collapse in Miami. The structural engineer deployed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The county department has a contract with FEMA for domestic deployments, according to Jeffrey Lewis, head of the Urban Search and Rescue team. The engineer, who becomes a county employee when he is deployed on any missions, is considered a disaster assistance specialist.
Lewis said the engineer has extensive experience with complex building design and with the analysis of construction failures, previously working to provide information on how house structures have failed.
While in Miami, he provided technical guidance to the operation with other engineers working on site. Members of the county’s Urban Search and Rescue team complete hundreds of hours of training and education in different disciplines as canine specialists, collapse technicians or medical specialists.
“There’s a variety of different disciplines and each one of them has a different set of core training courses that are required to be a deployable person,” Lewis said.
The team has deployed with FEMA on a variety of crisis situations from earthquakes, terrorist events, building collapse, hurricanes or flooding and provided guidance on infrastructure issues in other counties.
“You cannot cooperate too much,” Lewis said of the importance of sharing resources with other counties during catastrophes. “The more cooperation that you have, the more effective you’re going to be in mitigating any kind of a disaster.”
– Rachel Looker, staff writer