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Officials race to demolish rest of collapsed Miami building ahead of tropical storm

With the threat of Tropical Storm Elsa looming, the rest of the partially collapsed Miami Beach-area condo building could be brought down as early as Sunday, officials said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Saturday morning that the state will pay all costs associated with the demolition of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

That process could start “as early as tomorrow,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said during the press conference.

The announcement comes a day after Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the standing portion of the complex was subject to an emergency order “to demolish the building as soon as engineers sign off on next steps.”

“Our top priority remains search and rescue,” Cava said at a news conference Friday. But “the building poses a threat to public health and safety.”

Part of the threat comes as Tropical Storm Elsa approaches Florida. The storm could hit the state as early as Monday, impacting search and rescue efforts. Emergency experts worry that the storm’s strong winds could compromise the remaining structure and threaten the safety of rescue workers.

“We have a building here in Surfside that is tottering, it is structurally unsound and although the eye of the storm is not not likely to pass over this direction, you could feel gusts in this area. We don’t know. It’s definitely a possibility,” DeSantis said, adding that both mayors, Cava and Burkett, support demolishing the building.

A contract to authorize the demolition has already been signed, Cava said Saturday. Survivors and families of the 124 people who remain unaccounted for have been briefed about the plans to demolish the building.

“I personally spoke to survivors,” Cava said. “They recognize where we are and understand.”

Meanwhile, two more bodies were found in the rubble, increasing the confirmed death toll to 24, according to the mayor. At least 188 people have been accounted for, Cava said.

She had previously announced that demolition could take weeks. Things changed after officials spoke to another company with experience doing controlled demolitions Friday evening.

“Instead of waiting weeks and allowing bureaucracy to crawl,” Burkett said, Cava “made a very dramatic decision and signed the order to get this building taken down immediately.”

DeSantis said the building can be brought down within 36 hours, adding that the interruption to search and rescue efforts would be minimal.

Crews “would have to stop a little bit before, and a little bit after just to make sure that there were no fires, but it’s probably the most minimal interruption in terms of the course of action they’re pursuing,” he said.

Experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which investigated in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, had already started to survey the site of the collapse Friday as they investigate what caused it to crumble.

Following the collapse, officials have reviewed the structural integrity of all city condo high-rises above five stories. As part of that audit, one North Miami condominium complex was deemed unsafe, prompting an overnight evacuation effort.

North Miami Beach Building and Zoning Department ordered the “immediate closure and evacuation of Crestview Towers Condominium” after the agency was informed of a Jan. 11 recertification report in which an engineer said the 156-unit complex “was structurally and electrically unsafe.” More than 300 people who were living in the building have been evacuated, NBC Miami reported.

Out-of-town rescue crews who have been assisting on search and rescue efforts are now being forced to return home to engage in emergency preparation efforts due to the looming storm.

Charlotte County Public Safety Director Jason Fair, who is from a coastal town about three hours away from Surfside, told NBC’s TODAY he spent 12 hours sifting through the rubble but is now returning to his hometown which is on Elsa’s path.

“It’s time to switch hats and start taking on another public safety role,” Fair said.

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Comisky also said that six firefighters who were part of a rescue task force have left the scene after testing positive for Covid-19. So far, no other rescue crew members have been infected, officials said Saturday.

Other local rescue crews will remain on Surfside as they embark on their tenth day of search efforts.

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