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Questions Arise As The Search Through The Condo Rubble Continues In Surfside, Fla.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Officials in Surfside, Fla., say the remains of an 11th victim have been recovered from the site of a building that collapsed there last Thursday. A hundred fifty residents of the condominium tower are still missing. It has been more than four days now since any survivors have been found. Daniella Levine Cava is Miami-Dade County's mayor.

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DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: We're going to continue and work ceaselessly to exhaust every possible option in our search. I repeat, the search and rescue operation continues.

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

Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So this search and rescue operation continues, but what does that mean at this point?

ALLEN: Well, you know, it's been going on since the early morning hours of Thursday of last week. And now the crew from Miami-Dade County, which is one of the world's top search and rescue crews, has been joined by other teams from Mexico, Israel and other parts of Florida. They're using heavy equipment to remove these large chunks of concrete where they can, but then they have to use their hands to remove the smaller pieces, which are down to the size of baseballs and basketballs. Miami-Dade County Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah says whenever they hear sounds, the rescuers deploy listening devices and video cameras and investigate.

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RAY JADALLAH: It's not sounds of, you know, people talking or yelling out. As I've mentioned to the families, it could be a tap, could be a scratch. It may be nothing more than some of the metal that's contorting. But at the end, as I've said before, all variables, all facts have to be made before we make a decision to move to the next phase.

ALLEN: Yesterday, you know, family members were allowed to visit the site for the first time to see the operation firsthand. And while they were there, Jadallah says they saw one of the rescuers tumble down some 25 feet down the mound, a reminder for everyone just how dangerous the conditions are that they're dealing with.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, over the weekend, some information did come out that structural engineers identified problems at this condominium back in 2018, problems that they had said needed to be corrected. Were those problems ever addressed?

ALLEN: Well, they weren't yet. They had been identified by an engineering firm that the condo hired to - as they prepared to apply for recertification. That's something that's required in Miami-Dade County for every building - multistory building 40 years old or older. The problems that they - design that the engineering firm uncovered included a design flaw in the condo's ground floor pool deck that the firm said was causing, quote, "major structural damage." The report did not say the building was in danger of collapsing, but work was slow to get started. An early estimate put it at some $9 million. Some condo owners have already paid close to $100,000 in some cases, they've said, to pay for that work. But - and Surfside's Building Department was aware of the issues at the condominium. But right now there's just lots of questions to be answered. Miami-Dade County's doing an investigation. The federal government is also involved. They've sent a team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology here to do their own investigation. It's the biggest one they've undertaken like this since 9/11.

CHANG: Wow. Well, does this raise questions then about the safety of other aging condo buildings in Florida and elsewhere?

ALLEN: Right. It has to. I mean, most immediately, questions are being asked about whether it's safe to stay in the one part of the Champlain Towers condo complex that's still standing. That's the North Tower. It's a separate building built around the same time, but it's been inspected, and no problems have been detected. Some residents, though, have elected to relocate temporarily, but many others remain in the towers. And as I mentioned, Miami-Dade has this law requiring all 40-year-old buildings to be recertified. The county is doing an emergency audit of all older condos. But the engineer who helped write Miami-Dade's law, John Pistorino, says the law by itself can't make sure that condos are safe.

JOHN PISTORINO: The recertification is only intended to give the building official some authority to make sure that the building is all right. But the owners are supposed to be taking care of the building as required by state statute and our building code from the time the building was built.

ALLEN: You know, concrete buildings in coastal areas like Miami need a lot of maintenance to protect them from the humidity and salt, which can weaken a structure.

CHANG: Right. That is NPR's Greg Allen in Miami.

Thanks so much for your reporting, Greg.

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