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Condo Collapse Kicks Off Inspections Of Older Buildings In Miami-Dade County

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Six days after the collapse of a condominium tower in Surfside, Fla., 11 people are confirmed dead. A hundred fifty people are still missing. The search and rescue operation has proceeded slowly and methodically, hampered by thunderstorms and the difficulty of removing millions of pounds of pulverized concrete. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett was at a briefing this morning with families.

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CHARLES BURKETT: One of the other questions by the family members was, how long can people survive under the rubble, which was an excellent question. And there didn't seem to be a good answer to that.

CHANG: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami.

Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so no additional victims have been recovered since yesterday. I just can't imagine how agonizing this must be for so many of the families still waiting.

ALLEN: Yes, I think that's the case. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said the mayors - the families are frustrated and angry today at their briefing when they were briefed by task force members. Fire commissioner Alan Cominsky was a little defensive when he had a media briefing today. He said teams have removed 3 million pounds of pulverized concrete so far. Pieces of concrete are still falling from the building, which is the part of the building that's still standing. And there are several teams working at the site, with more than 200 people out on the pile 24 hours a day. Cominsky tried to explain how difficult a job it is to carefully sift through and remove all that rubble.

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ALAN COMINSKY: That building collapsed almost in the footprint of where that building stood. We're talking about 12 stories with subterranean garages all within that same footprint. So I'm just trying to emphasize the magnitude of what we're encountering.

CHANG: I mean, it sounds horrifying. I understand that there was also some new information today about some work that was previously planned for this tower before it collapsed. What did we learn?

ALLEN: Well, yes, a letter was sent by the condo board president to residents in April that said fixing all the problems at the tower would cost over $15 million. The most alarming part of the letter - the association president said the problems with the concrete and the corroded steel reinforcement bars had gotten worse since an engineering report that came out in 2018. Residents were all being required to pay close to $100,000 each in a special assessment to begin fixing the problems. But not all residents were aware of the situation. I talked to one gentleman, Albert Aguero, who was staying in the apartment his family owns when it collapsed. He says his family doesn't recall receiving the letter and wasn't aware of how severe the problems were.

ALBERT AGUERO: We did not. We knew that there was going to be a construction project. But, again, that was, in our opinion, aesthetic to raise the property value, not for repairs because the building was at risk.

ALLEN: You know, Aguero's family lives in New Jersey, and they didn't attend the board meetings. But they were preparing to send them their special assessment, which is $80,000.

CHANG: OK. And I know that officials have begun checking in on other older condo buildings throughout Miami-Dade County. Are they finding problems in those buildings?

ALLEN: Yes, there are some and nothing as severe as what we saw in Surfside. The county says there's more than 450 buildings more than 40 years old, though, that have outstanding violations. And 24 are four stories are higher, and they're being prioritized for inspection. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says the county is cracking down on violators.

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DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: Just last night, our building officer notified one of those properties, a building in northeast Dade, that four balconies must be immediately closed to residents due to safety conditions.

CHANG: How concerned are you finding people living in those older high-rise buildings?

ALLEN: Well, I think many people are. Miami Beach's city commission held a meeting last night to discuss the steps they're taking to ensure the condos are safe. They're also doing emergency inspections there. One commissioner said he's heard concerns from elderly residents, especially in subsidized housing. But Miami Beach's city manager says inspectors have checked those buildings, and they're safe. But lots of questions obviously remain.

CHANG: Indeed. NPR's Greg Allen in Miami - thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.