Search and rescue operations at a partially collapsed, 12-storey building in south Florida have been temporarily suspended, as officials prepare to demolish the still-standing portion of the tower ahead of an incoming storm.
Two more bodies were pulled from the rubble of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, near Miami, on Saturday, bringing the official number of deaths to 24 after part of the condominium fell on June 24, with 124 people still unaccounted for.
Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky told reporters the demolition of what was left standing of the tower had to take place as soon as possible because Tropical Storm Elsa is forecast to reach southern Florida as early as Monday.
“We’d have no control of where it lands,” he said.
Elsa was downgraded on Saturday from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 110kph (70 mph) as it brushed past the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The long-term forecast track showed it heading towards Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, though some models would carry it into the Gulf or up the Atlantic Coast. Weather officials warned that it could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the Miami area.
The search and rescue mission was suspended Saturday afternoon as crews began drilling holes into the concrete of the still-standing portion of the building to hold explosives for demolition, Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told family members.
Jadallah said the suspension was a necessary safety measure because the drilling could have caused the unstable structure to fail. If that were to happen, he said the building is “just going to collapse without warning”.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the building in Surfside is “tottering” and “structurally unsound” and demolishing it is the prudent thing to do.
“If the building is taken down, this will protect our search and rescue teams, because we don’t know when it could fall over,” DeSantis said during a news conference. “And, of course, with these gusts, potentially that would create a really severe hazard.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava signed an order calling for the immediate demolition of the building and it could happen as soon as Sunday, officials said.
“It is our fervent desire to get this done before the storm,” Levine Cava said. “Yes, we are concerned that tropical-storm-force winds could affect the stability of the building.”
Fire officials said the building would be removed in a controlled manner using explosive charges, not a wrecking ball or other methods. Contractors were inspecting the site on Saturday to come up with a plan, officials said.
It remains unclear what caused the building to collapse last month, but investigators have found evidence of water damage and structural corrosion so severe the building’s ownership association had estimated it would cost $15m to repair.
The president of the Champlain Towers South condo association told residents in April their building desperately needed to fix structural problems, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
A 2018 report released after the building fell also showed that an engineer found evidence of major structural damage beneath the pool deck and “concrete deterioration” in the underground parking garage of the condominium.
The engineer, Frank Morabito, warned that the waterproofing installed below the pool deck had failed due to a major error in design.