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Residents Of Champlain Towers South Lose Their Homes In Demolition

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What does all this mean for the search efforts for those 121 people unaccounted for? Mayor of Surfside, Fla., Charles Burkett is back with us. Good morning, Mayor Burkett.

CHARLES BURKETT: Good morning.

FADEL: So in Brian Mann's reporting just now, we heard Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak of further sadness and sorrow. What's your message to the residents whose homes are now lost following last night's controlled demolition?

BURKETT: I sat with Debbie, with those families the other day.

FADEL: Yeah.

BURKETT: And we went through very difficult circumstances with them. We are going to do everything we can. First of all, we acknowledge that their lives have been completely torn apart. We acknowledge that they've lost their homes and all their possessions. And we acknowledged at that meeting that there is no worse disaster, probably - short of, you know, themselves being victims in that collapse - that they could have experienced. So we're sensitive to that. Debbie has great connections with FEMA, and she's utilizing those connections. And we're doing everything we can for those families.

FADEL: How were crews able to bring down the remaining part of this building with explosives without disturbing the existing debris pile and further burying potential victims?

BURKETT: Well, that was something that the governor and I talked about a couple days ago.

FADEL: Yeah.

BURKETT: When the first discussion of taking the building down was had, we - you know, the hurricane was coming. The potential for that building to fall on the pile, with the victims in it, was a tragic thought. The governor and I thought that it needed to be taken down immediately. We moved in that direction. We expressed that to the mayor. She had been told that it could not be done. We - the governor provided her information, as did our town, because we went right to work talking to those demolition companies. And to the mayor's great credit, in a sign of spectacular leadership, she made a 180-degree turn and moved to take the building down immediately, which did several very good things.

What it did was it opened up the debris pile, which was closed down - one-third of it was closed down to workers because that standing building was so dangerous that they couldn't get near it. Now the whole pile is available to them, and we will pour more resources onto that pile and get everybody out in that area also. Secondly, we couldn't guarantee that the building would fall in the right direction, which it did. The building - the explosives were designed to have the building fall away from the pile...

FADEL: OK.

BURKETT: ...And not impinge upon the search and rescue efforts that were taking place. So it needed to happen. It was a problem. We needed to make the problem go away. And that's exactly what happened.

FADEL: President Biden had approved a disaster declaration for Florida due to Tropical Storm Elsa. How concerned are you about the storm that's on its way?

BURKETT: Well, as of last night, I was not overly concerned because it seemed as though it had moved further to the west again. I haven't seen it this morning, but I will take a look. I do want to note that President Biden's staff has personally sent me a copy of that. They have been amazing, supportive and early with respect to all of their help and all of their advice. And we are very, very grateful here in Florida and especially in Surfside for the president's intervention and the attention that he's given us.

FADEL: It's been 12 days now since the collapse on June 24. At this point, has the search and rescue efforts now shifted to a recovery effort?

BURKETT: Not at all. It's absolutely a 100% search and rescue effort. I have been, you know, going around and educating people about, you know, people who survive in collapsed-building situations. The BBC did a great piece on it a few years ago, where they went around and looked at different locations and collapses and found that one lady in Bangladesh was pulled out of rubble 17 days after the collapse crying. So we're not anywhere near giving up. We're going to find people - we're going to pull everybody out of that rubble.

FADEL: Yeah.

BURKETT: We're going to get everybody out. And we're expecting miracles. And we're working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until we get everybody out.

FADEL: This particular building had many red flags - the 2018 engineering report that detailed structural problems, infighting on the condo board from documents obtained by NPR and lawsuits. So taking the hard lessons of this disaster, what's going to change in terms of how your city handles inspections, permitting and certification procedures moving forward?

BURKETT: Well, listen; it's not going to be our little town that's going to make changes - it's going to be the state of Florida. There are going to be significant changes based upon the findings. NIST is there. That's the national agency that oversees building collapses, not unlike the NTSB sees airplane crashes. They will work. We will find out why this happened.

FADEL: Yeah.

BURKETT: There was something very, very wrong here at this property.

FADEL: All right.

BURKETT: And we need to get to the bottom of that.

FADEL: Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett. Mayor, thank you.

BURKETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.