Tropical Storm Elsa passes by Key West, heads towards Florida Gulf Coast

(Reuters) -Tropical Storm Elsa was moving past the Florida Keys on Tuesday morning and heading toward the west coast of the state, where it was expected to make landfall on Wednesday morning after dumping heavy rain over Cuba.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in a Tuesday morning advisory the center of Elsa was about 65 miles west-northwest of Key West and moving in the north-northwest direction at around 10 mph (17 kph), with maximum sustained winds of around 60 mph (95 kph).

A hurricane watch was in effect from Egmont Key, in the Tampa Bay region, to the Steinhatchee River some 180 miles north along the Gulf Coast.

“Slow strengthening is forecast through tonight, and Elsa could be near hurricane strength before it makes landfall in Florida,” the Miami-based weather forecaster said.

After a Wednesday morning landfall along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm is forecast to move north-northeastward across the southeast of the United States through Thursday, dropping 2-4 inches of rain across the Florida peninsula.

The arrival of tropical storm-force winds and rain was threatening to impede the search and rescue effort at the site of a condominium building collapse in Surfside, Florida, near Miami, where crews have sifted through rubble for 12 days in hopes of finding survivors. As of Tuesday morning, 32 people were confirmed dead and 113 were still unaccounted for, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

Tornadoes were possible on Tuesday across Florida and possible on Wednesday in north Florida, southeast Georgia and the low country of South Carolina, the NHC said.

Elsa has already killed at least three people and caused damage to infrastructure and agriculture in Caribbean islands southeast of Cuba, such as St Lucia and the Dominican Republic.

More than 100,000 people in Cuba were evacuated from flood-prone areas or unsafe housing in the potential path of the storm, most going to homes of family and friends, but thousands also went to government shelters, state-run media reported.

The NHC said tropical storm conditions would continue over parts of Cuba during the next several hours, with flooding possible.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrea Ricci)

Funeral for family of 4 to be first for victims of Miami condo collapse

By Francisco Alvarado

SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) -The first funeral for victims of a collapsed Miami-area condo building will be held on Tuesday as mourners gather to lay to rest a family of four, including two young children, nearly two weeks after the disaster struck.

Also, officials updated the death toll to 32 after four more bodies were found in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida. Some 113 people were still missing as rescue workers battled high winds from approaching Tropical Storm Elsa. Officials said they still have not determined what caused the collapse.

The lives of Marcus Guara, 52, his wife Ana Guara, 42, and their daughters, Lucia, 10, and Emma, 4, will be memorialized in a service at the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Miami Beach starting 2:30 p.m. ET.

Marcus Guara had just started a new job in November as a sales manager for a maker of towels and linens and often raised funds for charities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, according to his Facebook account.

Nobody has been pulled alive from the mounds of pulverized concrete, splintered lumber and twisted metal since the early hours of June 24 when roughly half of the building came tumbling down in an oceanfront town adjacent to Miami Beach.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told a briefing that rescue workers have been bothered by strong winds as Elsa approaches from the south.

“The wind is hampering the large cranes moving very heavy debris,” Burkett said, adding that he met with a family hoping rescuers will find their daughter, a recent law school graduate who married in January, and their son-in-law.

Experts and officials have warned that the probability of finding survivors was remote given how much time has passed.

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers have not found any “livable spaces”. He said workers had removed more than 124 tons, or 5 million pounds worth, of debris to date.

Forecasters predict the area will be spared the worst of the storm. Still, concerns over the impact of Elsa prompted officials to order the demolition of the half of building that had been left standing, which was carried out on Sunday night.

Investigators have not determined what caused the 40-year-old complex to collapse. A 2018 engineering report found structural deficiencies that are now the focus of inquiries that include a grand jury examination.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava cautioned that it could take some time to find the root cause.

“The whole world wants to know what happened here,” Cava told the briefing. “I look forward to learning the truth.”

(Reporting by Franciso Alvarado; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Andrea Ricci and David Gregorio)

Biden in Florida to comfort families as search at collapse site paused over safety concerns

By Katanga Johnson and Steve Holland

SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) – President Joe Biden visited Florida on Thursday to comfort the families of those killed and missing in last week’s condominium collapse, as the search-and-rescue operation was temporarily suspended due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure.

Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has marked his political career, was set to reprise the role of “consoler-in-chief” a week after the 12-story building partially caved in as residents slept.

The confirmed death toll remained at 18, after the discovery of six more bodies in the ruins of the Champlain Towers South condo, including two children, aged 4 and 10. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble, with hopes of finding any survivors dimming with each passing day.

After arriving in Miami, Biden attended a briefing with local officials, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.

Biden told them he would deliver “whatever you need” and said he expected the federal government would cover the full costs for the county and state.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This is life or death.”

Workers at the site were instructed to stop just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, when movement in the debris raised concerns that the part of the building still standing could collapse, officials said.

“The search-and-rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news briefing. Officials said they were unsure when that would happen.

Authorities said they have not given up on locating survivors. But nobody has been pulled alive from the wreckage since the early hours of the disaster in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers did hear signs of life during their initial efforts last week.

“They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard for several hours,” he said. “Eventually, we didn’t hear her voice anymore.”

Officials are also keeping a watchful eye on Tropical Storm Elsa, which formed over the Atlantic and could reach south Florida by Monday, potentially hampering search operations.


Among those traveling with Biden on Thursday were U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the collapse site; Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell; and Liz Sherwood-Randall, White House homeland security adviser.

Biden had delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts.

FEMA has dispatched five urban search-and-rescue teams – each comprised of 80 members – to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.

DeSantis said workers have removed some 1,400 tons of material from the collapse site.

Thursday’s trip is Biden’s second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president in January.

In February, he traveled to Texas after a winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.

After his briefing, the president planned to thank first responders and rescue crews before meeting with victims’ families. He is scheduled to deliver remarks shortly before 4 p.m. in Miami.

Biden’s ability to connect his own hardships with the grief and anguish of others has become a defining feature of his public life, having endured the deaths of his first wife, a daughter and a son.

Investigators have not determined what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old condo complex to crumble in one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.

But a 2018 report prepared by engineering firm Morabito Consultants ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies in the 136-unit complex that are now the focus of inquiries.

The Washington Post reported late on Wednesday that the majority of the board of the Surfside condominium, including its president, resigned in 2019, partly in frustration over what was seen as the sluggish response to the report.

(Reporting By Katanga Johnson in Surfside and Steve Holland in Bal Harbor; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Francisco Alvarado, Brendan O’Brien, Peter Szekely, Kanishka Singh and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Giles Elgood, Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall)