Florida collapse survivors escaped with their lives, but little else

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Furniture and household items are perched in the remains of destroyed apartments, in the still standing section of the Champlain Towers South condo building on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Scores of people remain missing one week after the building partially collapsed.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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 18 people, with more than 140 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 they’re making plans for the likely demolition of all 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. She still hears the screams from that night.

“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 Company 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 also 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.”

Raysa Rodriguez, a retired postal worker who lived at Champlain Towers South for 17 years and was close to paying off her mortgage, described in a lawsuit she filed against the condominium association how crashing sounds roused her from bed the night of the collapse.

“The building swayed like a sheet of paper. … I ran to the balcony. I (opened) the doors and a wall of dust hit me,” she said in the filing.

Rodriguez helped neighbors escape to a second-floor balcony where firefighters helped them to the ground. Now she has moved in with family members and assumes what’s left of the building will be torn down with no chance to recover belongings.

“She lived there for a long time,” said Adam Schwartzbaum, her attorney, “and she was planning to live there for the rest of her life.”

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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