Major structural flaws identified years before collapse, but condo oversight is slim

As the Champlain Towers South residents went about their lives for the past few years, their condo board was aware of “major structural damage” that called for repair.

Newly-released reports in the seaside town of Surfside near Miami Beach reveal building weaknesses that were exposed by the condo’s consultant in the fall of 2018, well before a county-required examination of the 12-story tower. Most of the needed repairs had not been made when the condo collapsed last week, burying residents in a mountain of personal belongings and concrete.

The revelation raises questions and exposes failures in the system that’s meant to keep South Florida’s older towers safe.

“Up and down the East Coast of Florida, on the east-facing sides of the buildings, the conditions shown in this report exist, not just in this building,” said Gregg Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney with a construction background.

It remains unknown whether the deteriorating concrete and the intrusion of water at the Champlain Towers, problems identified in October 2018, directly contributed to its collapse. But structural experts said it might be at least one factor.

Nothing in the consultant’s letter to the condo gives the air of imminent danger.

The October 2018 letter to the condo association from Morabito Consultants identified a “major error” in the building’s construction that left it open to water damage. The concrete slab beneath the swimming pool and entrance drive was not sloped, which allowed water to pool on top of it.

The nine-page letter said “failed waterproofing” below the pool deck and entrance drive led to “major structural damage” of the slab below. Replacing the waterproofing would be “extremely expensive” and create a “major disturbance” to the residents, the letter stated. But the flaw was cited as a “systemic issue for this building structure,” and one that had to be remedied.

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” said the report, which was signed by Frank Morabito, the company’s president.

The letter was posted on the Town of Surfside’s website, along with inspection reports and other documents on the collapsed building.

Permits posted on the town’s website gave no indication that any work was done to address these defects.

In the letter, which was labeled a “structural field survey report,” Morabito also pointed to damaged concrete in the tower’s underground garage: “Abundant cracking and spalling” in the columns, beams and walls.

The company viewed a sampling of about half the 136 condo units and balconies, the garage and the swimming pool, in order to recommend a “safe and functional infrastructure for the future,” the letter said.

Morabito Consultants issued a statement Saturday offering prayers and saying the firm was “deeply troubled by this building collapse.”

After completing the 2018 review, the firm was hired in June 2020 to create plans for the repairs, which would be done by another company.

“At the time of the building collapse, roof repairs were underway, but concrete restoration had not yet begun,” the statement said.

Implications for other condo buildings

Some of the troubles appeared routine for older, coastal condos: water seeping in under improperly sealed sliding glass doors during a hurricane, concrete damage on balconies thanks to water intrusion, rotting plywood, cracking of the facade stucco.

The more ominous findings involved the deteriorating concrete and pooling water.

In a 14-page “unverified inspection report” that the town of Surfside said it only received from Morabito last week, after the collapse, the consultant rated as “good” the “general alignment” of the structure, including any signs of settling. Portions “showing distress” were worst in the garage, where about “8% of the soffit of these slabs have experienced concrete deterioration.”

Atorod Azizinamini, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Florida International University, said issues in the garage could be critical.

“The garage is your foundation. Major columns are ending up there,” he said.

Donna DiMaggio Berger of the Becker & Poliakoff law firm said the condo’s engineering consultant recommended roof work be done first.

“The engineer prioritized the roof replacement. The roof was the first because we’re in hurricane season. If the roof flies off we’re not having a building,” she said.

The reports raise questions of culpability. How can condo residents know they’re safe? Isn’t anyone watching over them, as they live 100 feet in the air, trusting?

An honor system

Condo boards have a responsibility to act when they learn of potentially dangerous weaknesses, legal experts said. But the case of the doomed Champlain Towers shows that condo owners can’t necessarily rely on condo boards or government regulators to quickly repair weaknesses.

The framework aimed at keeping condos safe is based largely on the honor system. Cities accept inspection reports from professional architects and engineers, without checking the work.

In Fort Lauderdale, a city whose coast is lined with high-rises, a conversational primer on the process includes this explanation:

Question: “Will an inspector come out to my building to make sure everything is now correct after repairs have been completed?”

Answer: “No. The Building Services Division’s review is based totally on the architect/engineer’s report. ...”

Condos in only two of Florida’s 67 counties - Miami-Dade and Broward - have a requirement that they be recertified when they hit 40 years old and every 10 years thereafter, said structural engineer Daniel Lavrich, chairman of the Broward Board and Rules and Appeals, an enforcer of the building code.

At the Champlain, repairs were scheduled but incomplete more than two years after the consultant’s report.

Lavrich said any urgent repair exposed during the 40-year recertification process would have to be done quickly, or the city could impose fines. And any urgent need should be reported by the engineer, he said.

“If an engineer looks at a building and sees a problem and thinks there’s a serious danger to human life, they have an obligation to say something,” he said.

The tone of the Champlain report did not suggest serious danger.

At a Saturday morning news conference, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the county wasn’t aware of the warning in the engineer’s report.

“We are obviously very interested in all of the evidence that’s coming to light and we’re going to be including it in what happens after the rescue,” she said. “In the meantime, we’re taking actions to make sure other buildings are safe.”

Miami-Dade County will conduct a safety review of all its 40-year-old buildings that are six stories or taller and that haven’t concluded the recertification process, Cava said on Twitter. She urged cities in Miami-Dade to “do their own aggressive review.”

Champlain was completed in 1981. This year it reached the 40-year mark, and was going through the recertification process. Miami-Dade instituted the 40-year certification decades ago, after a deadly parking garage collapse in downtown Miami in 1974. Broward later adopted it also.

Repairs that are reported as needed during the recertification process must be completed or the city can assess fines. Extensions to the Miami-Dade recertification process can be requested, with payment of a $500 fee and an email to the “unsafe structures” department.

Azizinamini said the building code should be revisited. More counties might need to add a system for reviewing older buildings. And, he said, 40 years might be too late.

“We need to do something more frequent,” he said.

Who’s to blame, and who will pay?

Attorney Daniel Lustig, of the firm Pike & Lustig, said any negligence by a condo association could put owners at risk of losing their insurance coverage, leaving them with no compensation for the loss of their homes.

“The insurance company for the condominium association will try to latch itself to anything to avoid coverage,” he said. “If there’s no insurance coverage here, it will be akin to the association telling all those families, all those who suffered from the irreparable damage done to their lives, I’m sorry but the collapse is excluded.”

He said condos have “a duty under Florida law for sure to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition” and said more information will come out as lawsuits are filed.

One lawsuit filed Saturday on behalf of a rescued condo owner, Steve Rosenthal in Unit 705, aimed directly at the condo’s failure to repair damage.

Although it could be months before experts pinpoint causes for the collapse, the lawsuit alleges that structural defects caused it.

“The Association received or had access to numerous complaints from its membership that the condominium construction next door to the south, Eighty Seven Park, was causing the Champlain Tower grounds and structure to be shaking during its neighbor’s construction activities…all occurring after evidence of [sinking], was already occurring for years to the building,” the lawsuit said, citing cracks in walls and support columns, and concrete deterioration.

According to a real estate listing, Champlain had approved a 180-month special assessment for repairs.

The legal standard for a condo board, Schlesinger said, is to be “reasonably prudent. ... What would other condo associations faced with the same problems do? That will be on the jury instruction form: Did they fall below the standard care?”

Should you worry?

Whether other condo dwellers should be in fear is unclear. Experts hastened to point out that such a collapse had never happened before.

The town had inspected the Champlain in March 2018 for its annual “minimum housing standards” check, the town’s documents show. But the town found no hint of danger, citing peeling paint, some holes in a stairwell wall, and water in the garage.

John Pistorino, a South Miami engineer with more than 40 years’ experience, said he was “confounded” by the collapse. He has investigated several South Florida concrete cave-ins, including the Miami Dade College garage collapse in 2012 and the Florida International University bridge failure in 2018 that resulted in six deaths.

“Concrete doesn’t usually collapse that fast,” he said. “It usually gives you a warning.”

Pistorino said he hopes to be among a group of engineers who, working for different clients, will investigate the Surfside collapse. He said there will be experts with an assortment of specialties who examine many aspects of the collapse, including the chemical makeup of building materials and the ground underneath the Champlain Towers.

He declined to say who hired him but said he has been “contacted by attorneys.” He said he expected the investigation to take about three months.

David Haber, a Miami lawyer with expertise in construction and community association law, said it’s too soon to know whether the deficiencies revealed in the report had anything to do with what happened.

Other factors could be involved in the collapse of an older building in the saltwater environment of a barrier island, he said.

“What do we have here in South Florida? We have sand, limestone, swamp, landfill, and let’s not forget, rising seas and water tables,” he said. “How does that affect buildings built 40 or 50 years ago before we had this concept of rising sea level? We don’t know, and we’re not looking.”

Lavrich said the collapse was unprecedented, and he and others cautioned against making leaps on sparse information. “It’s easy to draw conclusions when you don’t have facts,” he said. “We’re all looking at this. We’re concerned about it.”

Staff writer Lois Solomon contributed to this report.