The grim mission at Champlain Towers South transitioned Wednesday from search and rescue to recovery. Equipment has been removed and the dogs have been sent home, but crews will be combing the rubble for the dozens of missing for a long time to come.
Blame has been cast at the homeowners’ association, the land on which the tower was built, the original plans, the builders, additional construction in the area, local government and even one specific official who told residents their structure was sound. Lawsuits have already been filed with many more likely to follow.
As a resident and board member of a 45-year-old oceanfront condo in South Florida that recently completed a concrete restoration project, I can confidently say the mystery behind the collapse will read more like “Murder on the Orient Express” than a garden variety whodunit.
The seeds of the disaster were planted by a failure of imagination. The last time a building collapsed on the Florida shoreline was 40 years ago, and early news coverage often repeated the phrase, “This doesn’t happen in America.” Regardless of how the engineer’s report read, nobody could foresee the building coming down—not the board, the residents or the local officials. This fundamental mismanagement of risk led to multiple bad choices. It is important to remember that many of those involved paid for their decisions with their lives; this essay is meant to explain, not accuse.
We will learn more about the building’s maintenance history in the coming months. Best practice for concrete structures on the ocean calls for an engineering study every 10 years, followed by repair to concrete and steel. The work is expensive and noisy, takes a long time, and is tremendously disruptive to the residents, but it is necessary.
When the multi-million- dollar bill came due for Champlain Towers South in 2018, the predictable reaction from some was denial. Question the engineer, question the board, question the need for the work, question the scope of the project. The Board of Directors are unpaid volunteers, not structural engineers, and the messengers took a lot of fire. Predictably, the composition of the board turned over and the project stalled.
The construction of a nearby building might have further exacerbated the problem. We don’t know if it was ultimately a factor, but the board turned down a $400,000 offer from the builder to waive liability. The offer was rejected in a split vote, leading to more board turnover.
In the time it took to install a new board, the project got even bigger, the tab grew to $15 million, and some remained reluctant to approve the assessment. The cost ranged from $80,000 to $330,000 per unit; it was a bitter pill to swallow. While it appears some piecemeal remediation was done in the interim, the vulnerabilities called out by the engineer in 2018 got exponentially worse as the concrete continued to crack, causing the steel to erode even faster.
A big culprit seems to have been the improperly pitched pool deck. The poor design caused severe water damage over the course of decades; it was clearly visible in the parking garage in April. Despite the frequent flooding, nobody with the authority to act recognized the gravity of the situation.
The board president at the time of the collapse wrote a letter in April summarizing the status in advance of an owners meeting. The new board was working hard to push the project forward. The letter and the board’s due diligence were thorough. Unfortunately, they were undermined by Surfside’s chief building official Ross Prieto who told residents in November 2018 after the engineer’s report had been issued, that their building was “in very good shape.” He also declined to investigate a Champlain South Tower resident’s concerns regarding the nearby building construction, choosing not to send out an inspector and saying in an email, “There is nothing for me to check.” This gave aid and comfort to those that didn’t believe the situation was dire and that the assessment was overstated. Prieto is currently on leave from his present employer, the city of Doral, Florida.
Subsequent record searches found that penthouses built on the tower were not part of the original plan and might not have been adequately supported. Steel support below the parking deck has also been called into question. Even the land underneath the building might have been a factor, though it is not considered a decisive one.
In the early hours of June 24, the pool collapsed, and Champlain Towers South came down on top of it. In a broader sense, the questionable structural choices at the time of construction and subsequent insufficient maintenance were the foundational problems and the underestimated risk on the part of some residents and the local government created the conditions that led to the cascade of tragedy.
Author: Lee Kinberg
Date: July 12, 2021