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Surfside search-and-rescue efforts paused for demolition prep

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava previously said the standing portion of Champlain Towers South “poses a threat to public health and safety.”

Search-and-rescue efforts at the Miami-area condo building that collapsed 10 days ago were suspended Saturday to prepare for demolition of the portion left standing, officials said.

"Search and rescue does have to pause while the demolition preparation is underway," Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference. "Preparation includes actions like drilling into columns in the unsafe structure."

Search-and-rescue operations were paused at 4 p.m., she said, and engineers at the site would tell first responders when it could resume.

Plans for demolition of the standing portion of the complex were accelerated as Tropical Storm Elsa loomed.

Levine Cava said she hoped demolition could be completed before Elsa strikes the area, which could be as soon as late Sunday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Saturday morning that the state will pay all costs associated with the demolition of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

That process could start "as early as tomorrow," Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said during the press conference.

The announcement comes a day after Levine Cava said the standing portion of the complex was subject to an emergency order "to demolish the building as soon as engineers sign off on next steps."

"Our top priority remains search and rescue," Cava said at an earlier news conference Friday. But "the building poses a threat to public health and safety."

Part of the threat comes as Tropical Storm Elsa approaches Florida. The storm could hit the state as early as Monday, impacting search and rescue efforts. Emergency experts worry the storm's strong winds could compromise the remaining structure and threaten the safety of rescue workers.

"We have a building here in Surfside that is tottering. It is structurally unsound and although the eye of the storm is not likely to pass over this direction, you could feel gusts in this area. We don't know. It's definitely a possibility," DeSantis said, adding that both mayors, Cava and Burkett, support demolishing the building.

A contract to authorize the demolition has already been signed, Cava said Saturday. Survivors and families of the 121 people who remain unaccounted for have been briefed about the plans to demolish the building.

"I personally spoke to survivors," Cava said. "They recognize where we are and understand."

Meanwhile, two more bodies were found in the rubble, increasing the confirmed death toll to 24, according to the mayor. At least 191 people have been accounted for, Cava said.

She had previously announced that demolition could take weeks. Things changed after officials spoke to another company with experience doing controlled demolitions Friday evening.

"Instead of waiting weeks and allowing bureaucracy to crawl," Burkett said, Cava "made a very dramatic decision and signed the order to get this building taken down immediately."

DeSantis said the building can be brought down within 36 hours, adding that the interruption to search and rescue efforts would be minimal.

Crews "would have to stop a little bit before and a little bit after just to make sure that there were no fires, but it's probably the most minimal interruption in terms of the course of action they're pursuing," he said.

Experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which investigated in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, had already started to survey the site of the collapse Friday as they investigate what caused it to crumble.

Following the collapse, officials reviewed the structural integrity of all city condo high-rises above five stories. As part of that audit, one North Miami condominium complex was deemed unsafe, prompting an overnight evacuation effort.

North Miami Beach building and zoning department ordered the "immediate closure and evacuation of Crestview Towers Condominium" after the agency was informed of a Jan. 11 recertification report in which an engineer said the 156-unit complex "was structurally and electrically unsafe." More than 300 people who were living in the building have been evacuated, NBC Miami reported.

Out-of-town rescue crews who have been assisting with search and rescue efforts are now being forced to return home to engage in emergency preparation efforts due to the looming storm.

Charlotte County Public Safety Director Jason Fair, who is from a coastal town about three hours away from Surfside, told NBC's "TODAY" show he spent 12 hours sifting through the rubble but is now returning to his hometown, which is in Elsa's projected path.

"It's time to switch hats and start taking on another public safety role," Fair said.

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Alan Cominsky also said six firefighters who were part of a rescue task force have left the scene after testing positive for Covid-19. So far, no other rescue crew members have been infected, officials said Saturday.

Other local rescue crews will remain in Surfside as they embark on their 10th day of search efforts.

CORRECTION (July 3, 2021, 4:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the Miami-Dade fire chief’s last name. He is Alan Cominsky, not Alan Comisky.

Dennis Romero contributed.