In this handout image dated July 2, 2021, search and rescue workers are working on the site of a collapsed Florida condominium complex in Surfside, Miami, USA.

MIAMI DADE FIRE DEPARTMENT | about REUTERS

Search and rescue operations in the partially collapsed residential tower in Surfside, Florida were temporarily suspended on Saturday as authorities demolish the rest of the building in a controlled demolition before winds from Tropical Storm Elsa threaten the unstable structure.

During a press conference, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said operations were temporarily suspended at 4:00 p.m. ET on Saturday due to preparations for the demolition, which includes drilling into unstable columns. The search can resume as soon as the remainder of the building is demolished.

“We’re going as fast as possible,” said Levine Cava on Saturday evening.

“It is our burning wish that this can be done safely before the storm so that we can control the demolition,” said the mayor on Saturday. “This demolition would protect and preserve evidence and allow for maximum search and rescue activity.”

The death toll from the collapsed building rose to 24 on Saturday, 121 people are still missing. No one has been rescued since the first hours after Champlain Towers South, a 12-story residential complex built in 1981, partially collapsed on June 24th.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the building could be demolished within 36 hours once the final plan is determined, while Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said the demolition could begin as early as Sunday.

“The fear was that the hurricane could tear the building down for us and fall in the wrong direction onto the pile we have victims on,” said Burkett, referring to Elsa, who was downgraded to a tropical storm on Saturday.

Levine Cava signed a local state of emergency for Elsa on Saturday morning. “Out of great caution, we make sure that we mobilize everything we need in the county to prepare for any impact,” she said at the meeting.

The long-term forecast shows that Elsa will be heading for Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, but some models would carry him to the Gulf or the Atlantic coast.

The accelerated plan comes a day after Levine Cava said the demolition may not take place for weeks as engineers studied and signed off the next steps. Officials have restricted access to parts of the construction zone that threaten public health and safety.

However, Levine Cava said a demolition expert came in on Friday night with the experience of acting faster than originally expected. Engineers and state, local and state agencies reviewed the plan and agreed that it was the best way to go, Levine Cava said.

“This planned demolition is very narrow so we don’t have a major impact on the area or additional evacuations,” said Levine Cava. “We are still in the due diligence process.”

The decision to demolish the remaining part of the building was made after search and rescue operations halted for much of Thursday amid concerns that the remaining structure could collapse and endanger first responders searching the site.

The cause of the building collapse is still unknown. An engineering firm checked the condo tower in 2018, nearly three years before it collapsed, and released a report that found the failed waterproofing under the building’s pool caused “major structural damage”.

“If the waterproofing is not replaced in the near future, the extent of concrete deterioration will expand exponentially,” the report said.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has launched a full investigation into the collapse and will make recommendations to improve building security.

Levine Cava ordered a 30-day audit of buildings in Miami-Dade County that are 40 years or older that are five stories or higher and have not yet completed the recertification process. The county is currently reviewing 14 such buildings and 10 that have recently begun recertification.

A North Miami Beach condominium building closed and more than 300 residents evacuated after an audit and site inspection report found unsafe structural and electrical conditions.