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After Condo Collapse, Florida Officials Scramble To Find Other Unsafe Buildings

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Good morning. A bleak morning, though, in Surfside, Fla., where the search for the missing is now on hold because of the planned demolition of the part of the condo tower that did not collapse. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says it's unsafe to leave it standing in advance of Tropical Storm Elsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: It is all of our fervent desire that this can be done safely before the storm. And this demolition would be one that would protect and preserve evidence and allow the maximum search and rescue activity to continue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The tragedy at the Champlain Towers is having wide repercussions in a state where so much of the coastline is populated with high-rise buildings. There have been emergency board meetings, and officials in surrounding cities are looking for other buildings that might be at risk. NPR's Adrian Florido has this report from the city of North Miami Beach.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Consuelo Salgado was at her job at a nursing home on Friday afternoon when she got an urgent call from her son.

CONSUELO SALGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He told her that city officials had given them and everyone else in their 10-story, 156-unit condo building two hours to evacuate. She rushed home, arriving with half an hour to spare. It was chaos.

SALGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The elevators were packed, she says, stopping on every floor as people squeezed in with suitcases, bicycles, computers, pets. Salgado grabbed some clothes and only later realized she'd forgotten her medications and her work uniforms. On Saturday afternoon, she came back hoping to find out when she might be allowed back in. Police guarded the locked condominium gate but told her they knew nothing.

SALGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Since the Champlain Towers' collapse 11 days ago, officials across Florida have scrambled to figure out which buildings in their own communities might be structurally unsound. In Miami-Dade, they're looking for buildings out of compliance with the county rule requiring structures be recertified once they turn 40. It was through this process that officials in North Miami Beach learned on Friday that the building where Consuelo Salgado lived, Crestview Towers, was nine years overdue for recertification and that, six months ago, an engineer hired by the condominium's board declared it structurally unsafe. He found exposed rebar and spalling concrete, problems similar to those seen at the collapsed Champlain Tower.

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ARTHUR SOREY III: The report spoke of spalling concrete, and we know that's a buzz word these days. So when we saw that in the report, we knew we had to act immediately.

FLORIDO: At a press conference, North Miami Beach city manager Arthur Sorey III said the city was acting quickly to save lives. He expects to find more buildings out of compliance. There are still many unanswered questions about what went wrong at Crestview Towers. At an emergency city council meeting held via Zoom on Saturday, Commissioner Barbara Kramer said it shouldn't have come to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA KRAMER: You know, it's really unfortunate that it took this loss of life and this unbelievable catastrophe to happen for all of the municipalities in the county to wake up to this because this has been going on for the longest time. And we're all going to see that.

FLORIDO: People are bracing for that at high-rise condos across South Florida. Even residents of low-rise buildings are on high alert. On Saturday night, a three-story building in South Beach was evacuated.

SALGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Standing outside the Crestview Towers, Consuelo Salgado says she is furious to have been forced out of her home. For many of the 20 years she's owned her unit, the condo's board has imposed special assessments on top of her regular $357 monthly maintenance fee. That money has been used for cosmetic things, she says, like painting and replacing hallway flooring.

SALGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Superficial things" she says, "things that aren't urgent." A lawyer for the condo board told NPR they hired a new engineer who this weekend said the building is safe to live in while repairs are made. But Olman Perez, who's lived there for six years, says even if he is allowed to go back, he won't. He plans to move.

OLMAN PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The people who died in Champlain Tower," he says, "they didn't get that chance." Adrian Florido, NPR News, North Miami Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.