Collapse survivors escaped with their lives, but little else

National

FILE – In this June 30, 2021, file photo, light shines on the Champlain Towers South as search and rescue teams continue looking for survivors of the partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, Fla. Dozens of people escaped with their lives, but little else. The disaster that killed at least 18 people, with more than 140 still missing, has also left many survivors homeless. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP, File)

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Susana Alvarez fled her home on the 10th floor of Champlain Towers South, escaping with her life and almost nothing else.

“I don’t have anything,” said the 62-year-old survivor of the condominium building collapse just outside Miami. “I walked out with my pajamas and my phone.”

The disaster that killed at least 20 people, with more than 120 still missing, also rendered dozens of people homeless. Many lost cars, too, buried in the building’s underground parking garage.

Though most who managed to flee to safety lived in parts of the building that remain standing, they have little hope of returning to reclaim clothing, computers, jewelry and sentimental possessions they left behind.

Officials said Thursday that they’re making plans for the likely demolition ofall parts of the building that didn’t collapse. The announcement came after search and rescue operations were paused for hours because of growing signs the structure was dangerously unstable.

Alvarez is still dealing with the trauma. She hasn’t slept in a bed since the collapse a week ago. Instead she’s been sleeping in a chair, constantly thinking of the victims who couldn’t escape.

“I lost everything,” Alvarez said, “and it doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Still, friends and even complete strangers have been helping replace what she’s lost. Friends she’s staying with outfitted her with new clothes and a computer. An eyeglass store refilled her prescription, even though she never called it in. And she got the last condo in a 16-unit building that was opened up rent-free to Surfside survivors for the month of July.

It’s unclear exactly how many residents have been displaced, but those with insurance policies should recoup at least a portion of their losses.

Victims also appear likely to get some money from the liability insurer for Champlain Towers South’s condominium association, which has at least four lawsuits pending related to the collapse.

An attorney for James River Insurance Co. wrote to the judge in one case this week that it plans to “voluntarily tender its entire limit” from the association’s policy toward resolving claims. An attached copy of the policy showed limits between $1 million and $2 million.

Michael Capponi, the president of a Miami-area nonprofit that for the past decade has helped victims of disasters from hurricanes to wildfires in the U.S. and abroad, said he has personally dealt with 50 people who lost homes in the building.

Capponi’s organization, Global Empowerment Mission, has distributed roughly $75,000 in gift cards among surfside survivors, and he’s working with hotel and condo owners to find places they can live for the next two months.

Most people who have contacted his nonprofit for help lived in the part that is still standing but assume their homes and anything inside are a complete loss.

“They are going to basically have to start all over again,” Capponi said. “Some of them don’t have insurance, and they’ve lost everything they worked all their lives for.”

Ryan Logan, the American Red Cross’ regional disaster officer for south Florida, said the organization has been helping about 18 families, and some of them have been looking for ways they can help other victims.

“These folks that we are serving, who we know they are having the worst experience of their lives, are turning around and asking you what can they do to serve,” Logan said. “It’s nothing short of amazing.”

Gabriel Nir narrowly escaped a first-floor apartment with his mother and 15-year-old sister. The family had just moved in six months ago. Nir, a recent college graduate, was living there while he looked for a job and considered medical school.

For now they are staying at a nearby hotel, the floor of their room cluttered with items donated by friends and strangers. They have no luggage. Their car was destroyed in the building’s garage. But all the material possessions they lost can be replaced, he said.

“I’m just grateful I made it out alive with my family,” Nir said.

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Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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