Florida officials plan Swift demolition of remaining part of condo

By Sophie Kaskove, Frances Robles and Rick Rojas

Florida officials said Saturday that they were rushing to demolish the part of the Champlain Towers South that remained standing, because they were fearful that the partially collapsed structure could not withstand the powerful winds of an approaching tropical storm.

Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged at a news conference that the demolition would create added hardship for the families who were forced to abandon their homes and possessions when they evacuated the building, which will now be reduced to rubble. But he said that he and other officials concluded that there was no other option, because the structure was perilously unsound even without the threat posed by Tropical Storm Elsa.

“At the end of the day, that building is too unsafe to let people go back in,” DeSantis said. “I know there’s a lot of people who were able to get out, fortunately, who have things there.

We’re very sensitive to that. But I don’t think that there’s any way you could let someone go back up into that building, given the shape that it’s in now.”

Officials said Saturday that preparations for the demolition could be completed within roughly 36 hours, in time for the building to be brought down before Elsa was expected to reach South Florida today. The demolition itself could begin as soon as Sunday, according to Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside.

The decision reflected the mounting concern over older high-rise buildings that has pervaded the region since June 24, when at least half of the 13-story, 135-unit condo complex suddenly collapsed, killing at least 24 people and leaving as many as 121 unaccounted for.

The disaster touched off a scramble to identify other buildings that might be vulnerable, among the scores of condo complexes that dot South Florida.

Local officials in North Miami Beach soon spotted one: Crestview Towers, a 10-story condominium complex, which they ordered evacuated Friday after the building submitted a long-overdue recertification report, based on a January inspection that documented “unsafe structural and electrical conditions” in the building.

“In an abundance of caution, the city ordered the building closed immediately and the residents evacuated for their protection, while a full structural assessment is conducted and next steps are determined,” Arthur H. Sorey, the North Miami Beach city manager, said in a statement. “Nothing is more important than the safety and lives of our residents, and we will not rest until we ensure this building is 100% safe.”

The order alarmed residents and set off a rush to gather as many of their possessions as they could before leaving the building.

Miguel Jiménez was busy at work Friday, detailing a car, when a neighbor called with a frantic message: They had been given an hour to evacuate their apartments in the 156-unit building, which was constructed in 1972 and is about a 7-mile drive from the collapsed building in Surfside.

Jiménez, who has lived in the complex with his family for six years, said he immediately started thinking about a loud cracking sound he heard last week, and the time a burst pipe flooded many units. The floors were still ruined, he said, and the building’s concrete columns have seen sturdier days. Some of the paint is chipping, and some units still have masking tape on the windows from past hurricanes.

“Everything is damaged in this building — everything,” he said Saturday, standing beside yellow tape posted to seal off the building.

Like other buildings in the region, Crestview was supposed to submit a recertification report when it turned 40 years old in 2012, but it did not do so for nine years, and was cited by the city each year for noncompliance, a spokesperson for the city said.

After the Champlain Towers South collapse, the city pushed harder. The city manager ordered his own audit Tuesday, and Crestview got another notice and fine. The complex’s building manager finally appeared at the city building department Friday with an 11-page report that was dated January. The report determined that the building was both structurally and electrically unsafe for “continued occupancy.”

Mariel Tollinchi, a lawyer for the condo association board, said the board disputed the need for evacuation, adding that any building that has not completed its 40-year certification is considered “unsafe” even if it is safe. She said the board thought the engineer’s report had been sent to the city long before Friday.

The report mentioned cracks, she said, but did not note that the cracks were not particularly deep and could be fixed with stucco. Another engineer, she said, has been hired to provide more details.

The board has been working on getting estimates for the repairs. Structural repair estimates came in at $250,000, but electrical work was priced “in the millions,” she said. “Even the general contractor did not agree with the report,” she said of the engineer’s findings. “He said he made it seem worse than it actually was.”

Residents, she said, should be back in the building within 30 days.

They were told Friday that they could stay at a shelter on the county fairgrounds some 40 minutes away.

At Champlain Towers South, officials said that the planned demolition would cause the “most minimal interruption” of search and rescue work at the site. A Maryland-based contractor, Controlled Demolition Inc., would use explosives to bring the remainder of the building down.

DeSantis said that officials were trying to get the job done before the strong winds and heavy rain of Tropical Storm Elsa arrive, even though forecasters expect the worst of the storm to pass by to the west. The storm may cause flooding and possible tornadoes across Florida.

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