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More Than 100 People Feared Dead As Search Through Surfside Condo Rubble Continues

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Surfside, Fla., officials made a difficult decision today. They told families waiting for word of their loved ones that the search and rescue operation at the site of a condominium building collapse was now moving to the recovery phase. Here's Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

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DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: It is with deep, profound sadness that this afternoon I'm able to share that we made the extremely difficult decision to transition from operation search and rescue to recovery.

SHAPIRO: Emergency workers will continue to recover victims from the site. Fifty-four people are now confirmed dead; 86 are still reported missing. NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: It's been two weeks now since anyone was found alive at this site. Even so, this must be a difficult decision for officials to make and for families to accept.

ALLEN: I think definitely so. You know, but it officially states something that rescue crews and even some family members have acknowledged for some time. The nature of the collapse left so very few voids or empty spaces where anyone could possibly survive. Officials have said for days now that they've seen no signs of any possible survivors. But even so, Mayor Levine Cava said it was not an easy decision.

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LEVINE CAVA: At this point, we have truly exhausted every option available to us in the search and rescue mission. So today is about beginning the transition to recovery so that we can help to bring closure to the families who've been suffering and waiting for news.

ALLEN: And this will hopefully, she said, bring closure, along with the meetings that the search and rescue crews have been having with families twice a day since the search began.

SHAPIRO: And what is that actually going to change on the ground? Is work going to go faster?

ALLEN: Well, not necessarily. The mayor said that they will proceed with the same speed and intensity as before. I spoke today to Jeff Saunders, who's the director of the Texas A&M Task Force 1. He's not part of the effort in Surfside, but he's been involved in other recovery efforts after Katrina and at the Pentagon after 9/11. He says a transition to the recovery phase doesn't mean operations will go faster now. In many cases, he says, the recovery phase is slower and more methodical.

JEFF SAUNDERS: Because now you really are going through every little piece of material to make sure that the areas are completely clear and that we're doing the best job to bring closure to all the families.

SHAPIRO: And while recovery efforts continue, just a short distance from the site is another building in the Champlain Towers complex that officials and residents are worried about. What's happening there?

ALLEN: Right. That's the Champlain Towers North condominium. It was built around the same time as the tower that collapsed and was built by the same developer. The design of the two buildings are also similar. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett has said a team of engineers working with the town's building department is there working with ground-penetrating radar, X-ray equipment and other tools to assess the building's structural integrity. He says the town will eventually say whether it's safe for residents to remain there. In the meantime, they've arranged housing for residents who want to temporarily relocate, and some have.

SHAPIRO: The partial collapse of that Surfside condo has to raise questions about the safety of older condos elsewhere. What's happening to make sure that other buildings are safe?

ALLEN: Well, in Miami-Dade, many towns in the county, they've been looking at older condominium buildings to make sure they're safe. Governor Ron DeSantis, though, says he's not really supporting proposals for more regulation at this point. At a briefing, he said he thought the problems might be unique to the condo building that collapsed.

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RON DESANTIS: Just having talked with people who've been on the scene, people who've done stuff, I think that - I don't think that this - I think this building had problems from the start. Let's just put it that way.

ALLEN: You know, one proposal would be to require safety certification statewide for older condo buildings. Right now, that's only required in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you.

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