US President Joseph Biden Thursday approved an emergency declaration in the state of Florida after at least three people were found dead and about 100 were still unaccounted for when a Miami Beach 12-story condominium fell to its ashes.
The collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium about 6 miles north of Miami Beach was reported around 1.30 am, triggering a mass rescue operation in search of survivors.
“The President’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts,” the White House said.
A wing of the 12-story building in the community of Surfside came down with a roar around 1:30 a.m. By late evening, nearly 100 people were still unaccounted for, authorities said, raising fears that the death toll could climb sharply. Officials did not know how many were in the tower when it fell.
Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis toured the scene and said things looked much worse in person than on TV. Rescue crews are “doing everything they can to save lives. That is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest,” he said. The governor declared a state of emergency in the county Thursday evening to provide assistance for the families impacted by the Surfside tragedy.
Florida Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis also vowed rescue teams were “not going to stop just because of nightfall” and that “They just may have a different path they pursue.”
The causes of the collapse are yet unknown. Video footage showed the centre of the building appeared to fall first, with a section nearest the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighbourhood. About half of the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, the mayor told a news conference.
Local hotels hosted some of the displaced residents and deliveries of food, medicine and more were being hastily arranged. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the rubble by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to provide more access.
The building has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, but it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, so the exact number of people unaccounted for is not known.
According to press reports, a total of 22 South Americans were missing in the collapse — nine from Argentina, six from Paraguay, four from Venezuela and three from Uruguay.
In Surfside -the county where the building is located- Mayor Charles Burkett called the collapse a catastrophe.
Surfside City Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told a local broadcaster that the building’s county-mandated 40-year recertification process was ongoing. Salzhauer said the process was believed to be proceeding without difficulty. A building inspector was on-site Wednesday. “I want to know why this happened,” Salzhauer said. “That’s really the only question. ... And can it happen again? Are any other of our buildings in town in jeopardy?”
The seaside condo development was built in 1981. It had a few two-bedroom units on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000. The area’s neighbourhood feel offers a stark contrast to the glitz and bustle of nearby South Beach. The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The main oceanside drag is lined with glass-sided, luxury condominium buildings, but more modest houses are on the inland side.
Teams of firefighters have been cutting through the rubble and placing sonar devices as part of the search efforts, which were expected to continue overnight. Responders have not heard any voices coming from the pile.
A substantial number of the building's residents are foreigners, according to Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
The Foreign Ministry of Paraguay said six Paraguayan nationals were in the building and still missing: Sophia López-Moreira, the sister of the country's first lady; her husband, Luis Pettengill; their three children; and their nanny, Lady Luna Villalba. President Mario Abdo Benítez cancelled his events due to the incident.
Argentina's Miami consulate said nine Argentine nationals are missing; Venezuela's ambassador to the U.S. confirmed four Venezuelan nationals are missing; and Uruguay's Foreign Ministry said three Uruguayan nationals have been affected, though their status is unclear. Colombia's Foreign Ministry also reported that six Colombian nationals resided in the building and officials are still trying to determine whether they were there at the time of the collapse.
The oceanfront condominium has 136 units, and approximately 55 of them collapsed along the northeast corridor. Reports on the number of victims rescued vary over time.
At least 45 people were medically assessed and treated on site. Aventura Hospital and Medical Center said it's received three patients -- two with critical injuries, one in fair condition -- and Jackson Health System said it has two patients.
The Champlain Towers South Condo Association was preparing to start a new construction project to make updates and the building had been through extensive inspections, it was reported.
Miami-Dade has an urban search and rescue team that has been dispatched to earthquakes and other disasters all around the world, but this is the first time the team has been deployed on home turf, a county official said.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava thanked the brave rescuers. We need to allow them to do their work because every minute in this search can make a huge difference, she said at a news conference.
There's real concern about the structural integrity of the remaining building, particularly from dangling wires and portions of concrete, a county official said. Fires have flared up throughout the day, adding to the danger for the search and rescue teams, the official said.
The unaffected section of the complex was cleared as of 8 a.m., the official said. Because of the lingering dangers, several blocks will be closed for the next week.
A family reunification centre has been set up for anyone looking for unaccounted or missing relatives at 9302 Collins Avenue and can be reached at 1-305-614-1819.