Demise toll rises to 18 as search continues

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Search and rescue teams are searching for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South apartment building on June 29, 2021 in Surfside, Florida.

Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images

The death toll in a condo building collapse in Florida rose to 18, with 145 people still missing, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference Wednesday.

Two of the confirmed deaths are children, according to Levine Cava.

“Our detectives worked around the clock to reach every single person we learned was missing,” Levine Cava told reporters.

The likelihood of finding more people alive in the rubble continued to decrease as the careful search and rescue operations of first responders began on day 7. For a few hours after being almost halfway through Champlain Towers South, a 40a-year condominium building with 136 units that collapsed last Thursday.

“Please continue to pray with me for those who lost their lives in this unthinkable tragedy and for all their families who are in mourning,” Levine Cava said at the press conference.

Levine Cava announced that the National Hurricane Center has released projections for a possible Category 5 tropical cyclone moving northwest across the Caribbean Sea, adding that authorities are closely monitoring the storm.

While it’s too early to determine the storm’s potential impact on the state, Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie outlined contingency plans for such severe weather that could further delay search and rescue operations at the site.

The department has asked the federal government for an additional rescue team to continue their search through the rubble, which would allow other teams that have been working on site to rotate to Guthrie. He added that the department is developing a system that will provide relocation assistance, communications and “backup plans” to respond to both the building collapse and a tropical storm.

“The state emergency team is extremely experienced in dealing with multiple disasters at the same time,” Guthrie told reporters.

The exact cause of the collapse is still unknown.

Following the collapse, Surfside authorities released a 2018 survey report in which an engineer warned the building showed signs of “major structural damage” and pointed to problems with the waterproofing under the pool and cracks in the underground car park.

A letter from the President of the Champlain Towers South Board, Jean Wodnicki, two months before the collapse also warned of the building’s structural problems, pointing to accelerated “concrete deterioration” that had deteriorated since the 2018 report.

Levine Cava said her team is working with subject matter experts to launch an investigation into the collapse and develop recommendations for building processes at the local level to “ensure this tragedy can never happen again.”

She also expressed her support for District Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s plans to conduct a grand jury investigation.

“I intend to ask our grand jury to consider what steps we can take to protect our residents without jeopardizing scientific, public safety or potential criminal investigations,” Fernandez Rundle said in a statement Tuesday and noted noted that the grand jury at issuing a report following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Levin Cava also told reporters that the Regulatory and Economic Resources Department has advanced the 30-day audit of all residential properties over four floors that are 40 years of age or older and “has not completed the process of identifying and resolving issues.”

Family members hold vigil for missing victims of the Surfside condominium collapse on June 29, 2021 in Surfside, Florida, United States.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The county is working with partners in 34 cities in Miami-Dade county to conduct reviews of buildings that meet these criteria, Levine Cava said Wednesday.

“We will be gathering inputs and developing a number of recommendations for changes that need to be made here in the construction process at the local level to ensure this tragedy can never happen again,” Levine Cava told reporters.

Guthrie also shared updates on resources for those affected by the breakdown and their families, noting that Florida Finance Corporation has found more than 120 apartment buildings to serve as shelters for displaced people.

Florida Housing Finance Corporation has also requested that the Department of Housing and Urban Development waive income restrictions to allow families to live in vacant properties funded by the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, Guthrie said.

Charles Cyrille, director of the Office of Emergency Management, also announced expanded operations at the Family Assistance Center, which provides mental health, grief counseling, financial, housing and travel assistance to victims’ families, among other things. There are currently 26 organizations working with the center to provide assistance.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will travel to the site Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week.

The Bidens plan to personally thank first responders, rescue teams and “everyone who worked tirelessly around the clock,” Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

Biden is backing a federal investigation into the matter, Psaki said this week.

“We are very grateful that the President is coming,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez III. “He has supported this community from the start.”

—Reuters contributed to this report.