Haunted by tragedy and fears for safety, residents of Surfside debate leaving their homes

SURFSIDE, Fla., June 30 (Reuters) – Chiara Mauriziano rolled a suitcase into Champlain Towers East in Surfside, Fla. On Wednesday morning, returning home nearly a week after a tower collapsed a few hundred yards away , killing at least 16 people and leaving missing scores.

Mauriziano, like many of his neighbors in the Champlain East towers and other neighboring buildings, woke up in a nightmare last Thursday. At around 1:30 a.m., Champlain Towers South, which sits on the same strip of waterfront as the apartment building in which Mauriziano’s family has owned a condo for two decades, partially collapsed into a smoking mound of twisted metal and of fragmented concrete.

Mauriziano, a 20-year-old Chilean student, had been staying in a hotel since then, too scared to enter the Champlain East Tower until engineers did a first check of the building’s stability. When experts reassured locals after inspecting the East Tower, which was built in 1994 and has a different architecture from the old South Tower, she decided to return.

“In the building it’s very quiet,” she said of the East Tower, noting that she had a clear view of the rubble from the once bustling pool deck of her home. “Nobody comes out of their apartment. It’s very empty.”

She hopes to move into a short-term rental while rescue teams complete the search operation in her neighborhood, she said, in a bid to avoid police checkpoints around the site and d ‘escape the sadness that hangs in the air.

As of Thursday, the streets of Surfside, an upscale oceanfront neighborhood on Miami Beach’s barrier island, have been lined with police vehicles, blocked by orange cones and police tape, and strangely quiet. From the perimeter of the rescue operation, one block from the debris, the faint sounds of crashing waves on the beach and rescuers drilling can be heard around the clock.

“It’s been a heavy, heavy week,” said Ayo Fanoiki, 54, who lives in a two-story building opposite the devastation.

As they mourn the tragedy in their backyards and cut police tape to access their homes, residents of Surfside grapple with the decision to stay or go.

Some said they feared for their safety, wondering if their homes might be vulnerable to the same structural failure that destroyed the Champlain South Towers. Others are haunted by deaths in their neighborhood, and the search continues for their neighbors trapped in the rubble.

Gillian Brill, 50, who owns a two-bedroom unit in the South Tower’s architectural twin, Champlain Towers North, was out of town when the collapse occurred but was planning to return home this weekend. end and assess how she feels staying there.

“Of course, I’m apprehensive,” she said in a telephone interview.

The north tower, built the same year as the south tower, passed the first inspections following the partial collapse of the south tower. Brill said she was comforted to know that her building’s board had always maintained the condo, including rehabilitating the balconies. Yet, she said, the scene of the collapse is “heartbreaking.”

“I plan to assess the situation upon my return,” Brill said. “I have friends who I can stay with if needed.”

“WE WERE AFRAID”

Authorities have not identified the cause of the south tower collapse. Investigations focused on a report by an engineer from 2018 that revealed structural deficiencies, and as recently as April, the president of the condominium association warned residents that the severe damage to concrete identified by the engineer around the base of the building had since “worsened considerably.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he understands the safety concerns of local residents as investigations continue.

“Their anxiety is not unfounded. In the United States of America, we just don’t have collapsing buildings,” he told Reuters. “We’re going to find out what happened, because there was something very, very wrong with this building.”

Fanoiki, who joined her neighbors on a night vigil for the victims and the missing at Surfside Beach on Monday, stayed at home, although she said the thought of her neighbors buried in the rubble was “disturbing”.

She expressed hope that the county would thoroughly review the structure of her building to ensure her safety. It currently does not meet the county’s continuous audit criteria for buildings over five stories and over 40 years old.

“It doesn’t make me rethink (living here) so much as it does hope that building codes are re-examined to ensure that lives are never lost like this again,” she said.

Julio Rumbaut, a 69-year-old former TV executive, packed his bags and left his Champlain East Towers condo with his wife on Thursday and is currently staying in a hotel. He was sleeping at home the night the South Tower collapsed, and he and his wife stood outside in shock at dawn after the building collapsed.

Several of his neighbors also left that morning, he said.

“We left because we were scared,” Rumbaut said. “And who wouldn’t be?”

He plans to return to the apartment, but not yet.

“I think it will be an isolated event,” he said. “But I think that will make people more careful, between that, climate change and corrosion and everything, about having a beachfront property.”

Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Francisco Alvarado in Surfside, Florida; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Alistair Bell

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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