‘Is my home safe?’: fearful Surfside residents scour for telltale cracks after building falls down

At least nine people were killed by the collapse of a condominium in southern Florida and more than 150 are unaccounted for

As rescue teams dug through twisted metal and concrete in a desperate search for survivors from a collapsed condominium on Sunday, residents of the beachfront town of Surfside were asking questions about their own safety.

Fernando Cruz, 35, a chef and entrepreneur, was woken by a thundering noise he likened to an earthquake as the nearby Champlain Towers South came crashing down at about 1am on Thursday.

At least nine people were killed by the collapse and more than 150 people remain unaccounted for. Subsequent reports of corrosion and unaddressed structural problems in the 40-year-old block have raised fears about the safety of other buildings in the area.

"There's a lot of anger, confusion," Mr Cruz told The National.

“People are at the city building right now, asking for answers.”

As police and rescue teams poured into the previously quiet, sun-soaked city in southern Florida this week, Mr Cruz scoured the walls of his own villa for “any breakages, looking for cracks” that could portend a similar disaster for his own family.

“If I was in one of these high rises, I’m out,” he said.

Residents have been phoning the mayor of Surfside, Charles Burkett, asking whether the frequent battering of hurricanes, storm surges and corrosion from the salty Atlantic Ocean air could cause a similar catastrophe in their own homes.

Of particular concern is Champlain Towers North, one block away, Mr Burkett told The National.

“Given it’s the same design, the same developer, potentially the same materials, the same plan, we need to get in there and look. People have told me they’re afraid,” the mayor said.

“I'd like to see that building evacuated so we can give people a proper answer to their questions.”

A large section of the oceanfront Champlain Towers South in Surfside, a town of about 6,000 people, crumbled to the ground while people were sleeping in the early hours of Thursday, lifting up a huge cloud of dust.

Rescuers are urgently sifting through the unstable pile of debris for survivors.

Teams are working on rotation with a small number permitted on site at any time in case of further collapse.

Their work is hampered by frequent downpours and smoke from a blaze beneath the rubble that was reportedly brought under control on Saturday.

Officials have gathered DNA samples from relatives of the missing to help identify any remains found.

A mesh fence near the site has become a makeshift shrine.

It is decorated with candles, bouquets of flowers, photos of the missing and children’s soft toys that were gathered from the collapsed building and are still coated with dust.

Relatives of residents have posted appeals on social media for information that could help locate their loved ones.

US President Joe Biden has approved an emergency declaration for Florida, meaning federal agencies will assist with relief efforts.

The 13-storey tower, completed in 1981, was undergoing a mandatory 40-year inspection and recertification process.

Engineers had found rusty steel and damaged concrete that needed repair, but there was no warning of imminent collapse.

Still, earlier reports had indicated warning signs.

Florida International University research published last year found the building had been sinking at a rate of two millimetres a year in the 1990s, which may have caused structural damage.

A 2018 engineering report found “abundant cracking and spalling” of concrete in the car park and “major structural damage” to the ground-floor pool deck.

One theory is that the saltwater ubiquitous in the area, which is subject to flooding during so-called King Tide events, intruded into concrete supports, corroding and weakening the steel rods used to reinforce the concrete.

Much focus is on ocean water, which is rising in South Florida and elsewhere because of climate change.

Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis last year signed into law a measure that would require developers to complete sea-level rise studies before beginning publicly funded projects.

Mr DeSantis said Surfside residents "have a right to know" why the building came down and should receive answers in a timely manner.

Still, it will take months for experts to test concrete samples and search for sinkholes before they can confirm the reason for the collapse.

Joe Zevuloni, a community organiser who has helped to take food and clothing to those left homeless, said he was leaving investigations for another day.

"That anger is not going to take you anywhere right now. We need to focus our energies on ourselves and towards helping the families and the first responders," Mr Zevuloni told The National.

“These families are crushed. What they need now is hope.”