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Vice Mayor Supports Investigation Into How Surfside Handled Condo Damage Warnings


The search and rescue effort continues in Surfside, Fla. Four additional bodies were pulled overnight from the rubble of a collapsed 12-story condo building there. Around 150 people are still unaccounted for. We're joined now by the vice mayor of Surfside, Fla., Tina Paul. Vice Mayor Paul, thanks for being here.

TINA PAUL: Thank you, Sarah. And thank you for the concern of our town.

MCCAMMON: It's been, as you know, more than three days now since this building collapsed. At this point, are you holding out any realistic hope of finding survivors?

PAUL: I am. I have to. I think that - you know, that we have to believe in miracles at this point. And until we've found everybody as best we can, I'm not giving up. Miracles happen. I have to believe in that. I have to have faith that the workers are doing their jobs as best they can. And if there are people alive under there to be found, they will be found.

MCCAMMON: Vice Mayor, I want to ask you about the recent history of the building that collapsed, Champlain Towers South. We know that there is a 2018 engineer's report that warned of serious structural issues with that building. Our NPR colleagues at Weekend Edition also spoke with a resident, Susana Alvarez, and asked her whether or not residents knew that the building was unsound. Here's some of what she said.


SUSANA ALVAREZ: I want you to know that in 2018, we had a board meeting. And we sat there with the town of Surfside. And the town of Surfside said to us that the building was not in bad shape, that the building was not in bad shape. That is what they said, OK?

MCCAMMON: And NPR obtained board minutes from that 2018 condo meeting confirming that the Surfside town inspector did indeed meet with residents and assured them that the building was, quote, "in very good shape." How do you respond to that?

PAUL: You know, it's difficult to respond to that because I wasn't at that board meeting. This - I had not seen the report until it was released to the public, to the press. And that was the first time I reviewed the report, which I believe was a day ago and late in the morning. And I was alarmed when I read the Page 7 because it reads like a typical inspection report. And when - you know, when you purchase a property, you get an inspection done so you know what you have to fix. And that's how this report read up until you get to Page 7, and you see that there's serious issues.

So I - you know, I was - until this building collapsed, I was not aware of any problems at the building except for about a month ago, and it had to do with the tars' fumes getting too close to the windows of some of the residents there. And that was the only complaint I received for the building. So typically, it's not something that would come before my desk. That would be handled by the building department. So if it was received there, it was really up to the building department to determine the safety of the building.

And also, the company who performed the report, they - you know, they performed the report. They did their job. They gave it to the condo. It - if the condo had questions, because I would hope that they read the report and knew what needed to be done, I don't - you know, it's hard to know how much they should have relied on the town and how much they should have relied on their management. And I don't want to point fingers anywhere because I - you know, I have not really seen any more documentation other than the report.

MCCAMMON: Do you think there should be an investigation into what happened here?

PAUL: Most definitely. There's an - there is an investigation. We hired structural engineers that are experts in this field. And we've also engaged with a company that does satellite infrastructure monitoring. So we will be able to assess this - the building because the building is a partial collapse. So we still have a - part of the structure standing there. And we have two sister buildings built at the same time. So through the satellite infrastructure monitoring, where hopeful we can find out if there are more critical points that need to be addressed now, and then we will definitely take action, you know, to make sure everyone is safe.

MCCAMMON: What else is being done to make sure that other buildings in Surfside are safe right now for people who are living there?

PAUL: Well, we've had the structural engineers go on site yesterday to look at the two sister buildings that were built in the same time period. And they evaluated that. At the moment, it's fine. And I - once we get the satellite infrastructure monitoring, we'll be able to see where the critical areas are. And until we have that information, we really - there's not much we can do in terms of - you know, all I can say to people is if you don't feel safe, then leave. I live in a condo. I'm four blocks away. I feel safe in my building. It has to do with Florida building code, when the building was built, how well they've maintained the building over the years. So I think that what we're looking at and what we will find - because this is an ongoing investigation, and until we get all the information and all the facts, we need to wait for a conclusion. And I believe that we - what we will find is many factors that contributed to this.

MCCAMMON: One last thing I want to ask you, Vice Mayor Paul. In the wake of this tragedy, there's a lot of discussion about buildings like this in places like this, particularly at a time when sea level rise and climate change are complicating questions about coastal living. And, of course, as we've discussed, we don't know everything that happened here or why this happened. But are you hearing from other community leaders in coastal areas who may be worried about their own residents after this happened?

PAUL: You know, Sarah, at the moment, because we're in pretty much a catastrophe, pretty much all of the neighboring municipalities have reached out to us with aid. And their concern is helping us at the moment. You know, with sea level rise dramatically changing in the past few years, we don't know how it's changed underneath our buildings. And that's what we need to get to the - to finding out now. And we will find that out. And we will share that information. And it's crucial to anybody on a - in a coastal community. So it started with us, but we will make sure that we make the right moves to help everybody once we find our answers.

MCCAMMON: That's Tina Paul, vice mayor of Surfside, Fla. Thank you so much for your time.

PAUL: Thank you, Sarah. And thank you for praying for our community.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.