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Surfside, Fla., Tries To Heal After Tragedy

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Life is forever changed in Surfside, Fla., where 90 people are confirmed dead in a condo building collapse. An estimated 31 remain missing. The beachfront town is trying to heal itself as it helps families affected by the tragedy while the difficult search for victims continues. From member station WLRN, Veronica Zaragovia reports.

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: Surfside's main street, Harding Avenue, is open to pedestrians and cars now. This weekend, waiter Andrew Abdalla noticed the change.

ANDREW ABDALLA: It's bringing in a lot more life back to the sidewalks. And there's a lot more cars, which is going to bring people into the parking lots, which is going to bring business back into the restaurants.

ZARAGOVIA: This town of nearly 6,000 is dependent upon tourism. But for now, the businesses are focusing on their customers who are local residents. Fewer police officers stand on the streets now, and the sound of sirens is subsiding. But nearly three weeks after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building, Abdalla says his customers are still struggling.

ABDALLA: They seem like they're about ready to cry. They just need a shoulder to lean on. And I'm here for them.

ZARAGOVIA: The condo building is now a mountain of rubble. Just across the street yesterday, a stream of visitors came to the memorial posted on a tennis court fence. The tragedy feels fresh here. People come to see the photos, stuffed animals, votive candles. They hang flags and leave flowers. Loli Ripes came to write a message to her friend, Hilda Noriega.

LOLI RIPES: (Speaking Spanish).

ZARAGOVIA: "I'll remember you dearly," Ripes wrote on a light blue heart. Noriega lived on the sixth floor and used to invite Ripes over to enjoy the ocean view.

RIPES: (Speaking Spanish).

ZARAGOVIA: "She was always happy," Ripes says. "She always smiled. I'm keeping her smile in my heart." Later yesterday, the city hosted a sendoff for a group of rescuers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We love you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Love you.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hebrew).

ZARAGOVIA: "Well done," a guy shouts in Hebrew. Around the corner, crowds gathered and applauded as members of the Israeli Defense Forces approached. The team has been a key part of the recovery effort, searching for victims and meeting with families. They're flying back today. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wiped away tears before leading the ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: In just a few moments, we'll begin a memorial walk all the way from the site...

ZARAGOVIA: To a hotel where families of victims are staying. Ashley Dean is the sister of a missing victim, Cassie Stratton. Dean holds up a cell phone with Stratton's photo on it.

ASHLEY DEAN: These wonderful people from all over helping to find my baby sister. I feel very humbled and appreciative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEVINE CAVA: And before we walk, we know that none of this would have been possible without the extraordinary valor, courage, skill, dedication of all of our task force members, a special shoutout to task forces one and two...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

LEVINE CAVA: ...Right here at home.

ZARAGOVIA: The faces of the local responders remain somber. They will continue the work around the clock to find each remaining victim. For NPR News, I'm Veronica Zaragovia in Surfside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.