What will happen to the collapsed Surfside building if Hurricane Elsa affects Florida?
Authorities managing the search under the rubble of the partially collapsed building in Surfside are worried that Hurricane Elsa could bring down the portion of Champlain Towers South Condo that remains standing.
Ray Jadallah, assistant Miami-Dade fire chief, said at a private briefing Friday morning that while the storm’s track remains a distant threat, preparations for increased wind and rain could begin forcing minor changes in the rescue area by the afternoon.
He emphasized that only support equipment not directly used in the search would be temporarily removed, and that search crews would remain on the job until the last possible moment.
“Even if the hurricane is coming, we’re going to continue working until the safety of the personnel is in question,” Jadallah said in a morning briefing with the families of the missing, according to a video stream posted on social media. “The last thing to move is our personnel.”
Elsa is forecast to weaken back into a tropical storm by the time it nears South Florida on Monday or Tuesday, although forecasters warn that there’s still a lot of uncertainty in its track and potential impact.
For now, Elsa is a distant threat to Surfside, with only a 15% chance of the Miami area getting tropical-force winds by Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center. But the nasty weather that comes with the proximity to a tropical system can be a serious threat in Surfside, where summer rains have already complicated rescue efforts.
Margarita Castro, a member of the Florida Task Force 1 search and rescue team, said Friday that a final decision on stopping rescue efforts would not come down until the storm comes closer — possibly Saturday or Sunday. The plan depends on whether the storm hits directly or brushes by.
“It is very possible that depending on what we end up receiving that all work will stop,” she told reporters.
Castro, a veteran firefighter, told the Miami Herald that families of those missing have been informed that trucks and other “assets” aiding the rescue work may be removed from the collapse site Friday because authorities “can’t wait to remove everything at the last minute.” That won’t hinder rescue efforts, she said.
Heavy machinery would remain on-site regardless of the impact a potential storm brings, and the rescuers themselves would continue working until “it is no longer feasible for them to work.”
“The last asset that will leave this site will be the rescue workers, and the first asset that returns, as soon as it is possible, will be the rescue workers,” she said.
Rescuers work through rain, but when lightning strikes within 2.5 miles of the site they must stop for 30 minutes, Castro said. On Thursday night, workers stopped for half an hour due to lightning, she said.
“It’s summer in South Florida. It rains every day. We’re used to working in the rain. The conditions obviously become a little slippery, things of that nature, but it does not stop the work and it will never deter us from doing the work,” she said.
The remaining structure of the tower has gotten waterlogged from daily downpours, adding to the instability of the structure. Fears of it falling forced authorities to temporarily halt rescue efforts overnight Thursday — a 15-hour period that was the first pause since the June 24 partial collapse.
Castro said rescuers were “desperate” to return to work Thursday evening after the stoppage. Officials have confirmed 22 deaths., with 126 people missing.
“We understand that there are dangers in what we do,” she said. “We all take this position knowing that there are dangers. We trust that the structural engineers and the people that are in charge of our safety are doing their job the same way they trust that we’re doing ours.”
She said rescuers’ mission is “to bring closure to these families, to be able to find their loved ones and give them something to be able to move on from this horrible tragedy that has happened here.”
All eight of Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue task force teams, about 370 people, have been assisting in Surfside’s search and rescue efforts, making it the largest deployment of task force resources in the state for a disaster that’s not a hurricane.
The number of people on the ground is equal to what was deployed in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 hurricane that devastated the Panhandle in 2018. Search-and-rescue task force teams from Israel and Mexico are also at the site.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie earlier this week said his agency is prepared to handle up to three catastrophes at a time. The division on Friday tweeted that it had “begun implementing co-response plans for Surfside and Elsa.”
According to FDEM, five federal Type 1 Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces from Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been deployed to Surfside to ensure additional first responders are available in case Florida experiences severe weather. Task forces from Virginia, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania are already there. The New Jersey task force is on its way.
Jadallah told family members that strong winds could topple the building entirely.
“There is a chance,” he said of a potential storm. “It depends on how strong the wind is, how sustained the wind is.”