Who is responsible for Florida’s catastrophic condo apartment building collapse?

By Deborah Goonan debgoonan@icloud.com, Independent American Communities

People in the U.S. and around the world are watching closely as rescue and recovery teams continue their painstaking search for residents of Champlain Towers South. Roughly 50 units in the 136-unit, 12-story condominium in Surfside, just outside of Miami, collapsed at approximately 1:30 AM on June 24, 2021.

At I write this post, authorities have confirmed 20 fatalities, with 128 former occupants of the building unaccounted for. The death toll is expected to rise as first responders continue to identify human remains found in the rubble.

Just today, Judge Michael Hanzman ordered the condo association under the Receivership of Michael Goldberg.

Why did Champlain Towers South collapse?

Local surveillance video shows the center of the tower collapsing first, quickly followed by the eastern side of the tower. The remaining portion of the structure remains standing.

The video captures the moments when the middle and eastern wings of the tower pancaked vertically downward in less than 11 seconds. Many observers have remarked that the incident closely resembled an implosion — a deliberate process often used to demolish abandoned high rises to allow for new construction on the site.

However, there have been no reports of suspected foul play in the collapse of Champlain Tower South.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has begun to investigate the cause or causes of the catastrophic collapse. State and local investigations are also underway, including a Grand Jury inquiry into those responsible for the disaster. The town of Surfside is also conducting immediate inspections and audits of other high-rise buildings in the area.

Everyone wants to understand why the 40-year-old steel-reinforced concrete structure with an art deco inspired design pancaked into a pile of rubble and a cloud of smoke in just 11 seconds, trapping more than 150 people in its wreckage.

This post summarizes what we know now, considers how the collapse of Champlain Towers South might have been prevented, and opines on what lie ahead for owners and survivors.

What caused the Surfside condo to suddenly collapse?

Multiple news outlets have uncovered several probable causes for the sudden failure of Champlain Towers South. A brief summary follows.

Earth subsidence / rising sea levels

Early reports revealed that a 1990s research project at the Florida International University (FIU) noticed unusual earth subsidence at the site of Champlain Towers South. Between 1993-1999, FIU Professor Shimon Wdowinski was conducting research on rising sea levels off the Atlantic Coast of Florida. In his report, Wdowinski noted Champlain Towers South as a building with an ‘exceptional’ rate of sinking into the ground, at a rate of 2 millimeters per year. The Professor opines that land subsidence could have continued beyond 1999. If so, this could have been a factor leading to instability and sudden failure of the building’s foundation.

A sinkhole in the pool deck area?

In another report, New York Post interviewed Mike Stratton, the husband of 40-year-old Cassie Stratton, both of whom were part-time residents of Surfside. Mike Stratton, who was in Washington, D.C. on a business trip at the time of the collapse, told NYP that his wife phoned him just before 1:30 AM on June 24. Cassie was barely able to tell Mike that a large sinkhole had just opened up on the pool deck below their unit’s balcony. Then the phone call ended abruptly.

Piecing together details from dozens of reports, I’ve learned that, some years ago, the condo association filled in their original swimming pool, then constructed a new pool nearby.

The pool deck is on the main level, situated above an underground parking garage.

The ground level slab that supports the pool deck also provides structural support for the building, according to Jason Borden, an engineer who inspected the pool area last year. Borden told CNN that, if a sinkhole did open up in the pool deck, it would certainly explain the collapse of Champlain Tower South.

Deferred maintenance of structural problems

In 2018, a professional engineer from Morabito Consultants inspected the structural integrity of Champlain Tower South, from the roof to the basement garage. His inspection included a visual examination of the condition of the pool deck as well as the concrete slab which supported the pool from underneath. According to details described in his report, Frank Morabito observed a number of structural problems, and, although he did not warn of imminent danger, he recommended repairs be addressed in a timely manner.

I’ve read the 9-page report, which is linked here.

Here are issues highlighted in Morabito’s report:

  • Deteriorated window glazing on dozens of units.
  • Improperly-sized replacement sliding glass doors, with missing flashing to prevent water leakage.
  • Rotting fascia boards on the entry soffit, with probable mold infestation.
  • Structural cracks, peeling paint, and general deterioration of many concrete balconies.
  • The absence of suspension hooks on the roof, to allow for window washers and other contractors to safely maintain the tower, following OSHA guidelines.
  • A failed attempt at repair of numerous structural cracks in concrete support posts and slabs, many noted in the underground parking garage. ‘Abundant’ spalling and cracking of concrete slabs, posts and walls, also in the parking garage.
  • An ‘error’ in the construction of the concrete slab for the entry drive and pool deck area. Morabito emphasizes that the concrete slab was not sloped properly, leading to poor drainage and significant damage, which, if not repaired, would ‘increase exponentially.’

In his 2018 report, Morabito goes on to acknowledge that repairing the concrete slab errors and defects will be expensive. In his professional opinion, he explains the correct way to address the problem. It would entail complete removal and replacement of the pool deck, replacement of the faulty concrete slab and waterproofing system with one that slopes to allow drainage of water away from the garage and foundation. The project is also likely to require repair or replacement of any additional deteriorated steel beams or concrete that might be discovered during the demolition process.

Although the professional engineer did not warn of imminent collapse of the building, I’ll bet that astute readers of Morabito’s October 2018 report on Champlain Towers South will conclude that his message was clear. Time was of the essence on restoring the structural integrity of the building.

Mixed messaging from Surfside City Official

Despite the warnings issued by Morabito, according to one MSN report, a few months later, former Surfside City official Rosendo “Ross” Prieto reassured condominium board members that their building was still in ‘very good shape.’

Following that mixed messaging, the condo association embarked on a 2-and-a-half-year-long process to develop a multimillion dollar major reconstruction and renovation plan. The planning process was hindered by the resignation of 5 of the 7 condo board members in 2019.

In 2018, Morabito estimated a cost of $9 million.

However, this April, condo owners received a letter stating that structural issues and deterioration of concrete had become more urgent. The condition of the concrete had become much worse in the past few years, and would require increasing the special assessment to $15.5 million.

Roofing contractors had begun to work on Champlain Towers the week the collapse occurred. However, numerous surviving condo owners report that work had not yet begun on repair or replacement of deteriorated concrete or corroded steel support beams.

More clues from non-residents of Champlain Towers South

As reported in Miami Herald, two days before the building collapsed, a pool contractor snapped some shocking photos of extensive concrete damage in the parking garage. The pool equipment room, and portions of the parking garage, were covered in ankle-deep water. A condo staff member, apparently desensitized to the condition of the building, told the pool contractor that the condominium association had to continuously pump water out of the garage.

Less than a week after the collapse, another video provides clues as to what went wrong. Startled by a loud noise, a tourist staying in a nearby building ventured outside to investigate. She managed to record a video of water pouring from the ceiling of the parking garage in Champlain Towers South — just moments before the building came crashing down.

Owners file HOA lawsuits

In the past few days, condo owners have filed three separate lawsuits against the condo association, claiming that the condo board failed to take necessary actions to protect the health, safety, and lives of owners and residents of Champlain Tower South. Attorneys are reportedly preparing to consolidate legal claims in a class action lawsuit.

There’s little doubt that deferred maintenance played a key role in the building’s structural integrity. However, some experts claim there are still questions as to whether delayed repairs were responsible for the catastrophic collapse. They cite other factors that may have led to sudden failure of the building, including defective design and construction of concrete support structures, and potential instability of soils on the site of the condo tower.

And, as more information is revealed, it’s becoming clear that the condo board cannot bear full responsibility for the collapse of Champlain Towers South.

Who else might have prevented this disaster?

At this point, no one can officially conclude that the failure to maintain the common infrastructure was the sole or primary cause of the collapse of Champlain Towers South.

However, common sense tells us that years of deferred maintenance, and delayed reaction, was the most likely contributing factor.

But let me be clear: In my opinion, responsibility for proper maintenance and timely repair of a condominium extends beyond the association’s board of directors. Many other people had important roles to play in ensuring that this 1980s high-rise building remained safe for its residents. And it’s becoming more apparent that the actions or inactions of multiple people may have led to the ultimate outcome for the owners, residents, and guests of Champlain Towers South on June 24, 2021.

What if decision-makers and experts had spoken out truthfully? What if they had been willing to make unpopular decisions, and to risk being dismissed as alarmists?

For example: Surfside city officials, including the code enforcement officer, could have stressed the urgency of timely action on repairs in 2018, rather than downplaying the problems with false reassurance. The city could have played a more proactive role by following up on the condo association’s progress (or lack of it) each month after Morabito filed his October 2018 engineering report. And, out of an abundance of caution, city officials could have also ordered all residents to vacate Champlain Towers South shortly before work began several weeks ago.

In order to avoid delays in a bureaucratic and all-encompassing planning process, the condo association’s attorneys could have authoritatively advised the board to use its emergency powers to address the most serious structural problems ASAP. Even some temporary shoring up of key support columns could have made all the difference.

Critics may point out that, perhaps the board was advised as such, but chose not to heed prudent legal advice. Fair enough. In that case, condo attorneys could have withdrawn their representation of the condo board, sending a clear signal of the seriousness of ignoring their prudent advice.

Various association vendors, contractors, and staff members witnessed first hand the deplorable and unsafe conditions at Champlain Towers South. Any of them could have filed code violation reports with local or statewide authorities — assuming an appropriate reporting system exists in the city of Surfside or Miami-Dade County. See something, say something. It’s preferable to turning a blind eye to obvious health and safety hazards.

Looking back to 1981, Surfside city officials could have required much higher building code standards. It’s common knowledge that, at the time, developers were notorious for their supbar building quality. Many experts would argue that, even with today’s more robust building codes, a substantial number of new construction projects — especially multifamily properties — offer cheap construction quality, often riddled with defects. Most of these flaws go unnoticed until the short statue of limitations on builder warranties runs out.

At that point, property owners are saddled with homes and buildings that are difficult and expensive to maintain, and, like Champlain Towers South, these buildings are prone to premature obsolescence. They often require excessively expensive repair and renovation.

But, what about the condo unit owners?

If unit owners of Champlain Towers South had been honestly and openly informed of the gravity of the problems with their building, condo owners might have been more willing to raise the money needed to start making repairs months or years ago.

Admittedly, at this time, it’s truly unclear how much owners knew, or didn’t know, about the progression of decay of concrete and steel components of the towers.

According to the condo board President, unit owners should have been well-informed, because the association did make an effort to inform members of the need for timely — but costly — repairs.

However, some recent buyers say they were unaware of the need for extensive building repairs at the time of purchase. And it’s also unlikely that tenants or guests of Champlain South were informed of any problems at all.

Some condo owners say they were deeply concerned about restoration project delays. No doubt, these are the owners who have sued — or will join the class action suit against their condo association.

A number of owners were equally concerned about steep budget increases to pay for repairs. Imagine being hit with a $100,000 special assessment — more or less, depending on the size of your condo unit. Obviously, the majority of condo owners were either unable or unwilling to raise the money they needed to fix their building.

Was this a matter of owners not being aware of the urgency of the problem? Or was it a matter of analysis paralysis, and the fact that the owners couldn’t agree on the best course of action?

The bottom line is that the HOA raised less than $2 million in cash, out of a $15.5 million special assessment. The remainder of the funds had to be borrowed.

What’s next?

The condo association Receiver has a big, messy job to do. First of all, even though half of Champlain Towers South has collapsed, the building is a total loss. But with debts outstanding, surviving owners and estate holders are still obligated to make payments on the $15.5 million loan.

The condo association is reportedly insured for $48 million. However, the extent of the damage done is likely to far exceed what may appear to be a huge sum of money. Survivors and estates of the deceased are likely to be embroiled in litigation for years. The finger pointing and blame shifting has only just begun.

The trial lawyers and their expert witnesses will turn over many stones, and people around the world will learn about every petty squabble, every error in judgment, and the general dysfunction present within the community for many years. It will undoubtedly dredge up a lot of painful memories.

In the aftermath of this crisis, some of the surviving owners and residents are likely to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression. Others may face challenges recovering from their injuries.

And while all of this is going on, I would not be surprised if real estate investors descend upon the site of Champlain Towers South like vultures, hoping to seize the opportunity of one day building a new, more grand building — perhaps an apartment tower or hotel — on this historic piece of oceanfront property.

Prices of condos in older buildings in Surfside and elsewhere are likely to decrease. Perhaps more buyers will avoid condos altogether, for years to come. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the site of Champlain Towers South will become a perpetually vacant lot or a memorial site.

Instead, I fear that condominium terminations and hostile takeovers will once again surface in the Sunshine State, as they did following the Great Recession of 2007-2008. This time, investors will target owners of 40-year-and-older buildings that may also be at risk for sudden failure. One Real Estate expert, Alicia Cervera, chairman and principal of Cervera Real Estate,has already gone on record in the Miami Herald, saying that condo termination is a good ‘exit strategy’ for owners who cannot afford to maintain their building.

It will be a difficult time, not only for condo owners and survivors, but also for owners and residents of older condo buildings in Florida and beyond.

Deborah Goonan

is the creator of Independent American Communities (IAC), a Housing Consumer Education blog focusing on HOA governed Common Interest Developments.
IAC documents legal, social, and economic challenges — and explores solutions to problems — in U.S. HOA-governed common interest communities.