Reminders of Surfside Collapse Emphasize Magnitude of New Condo Inspections and Reserves

Siegfried Rivera
June 13, 2024

Miami Herald

Shareholder Jeffrey S. Respler authored an article titled “Reminders of Surfside Collapse Horror Emphasize Magnitude of New Condo Inspections and Reserves,” which was published in the Miami Herald. The article focuses on several recent reminders of the Champlain Towers South collapse and the significance of the new state-mandated inspections and reserves. His article reads: 

. . . After the horrific tragedy of the collapse in Surfside that claimed 98 lives, the county and federal officials want to be prepared. They worked together and coordinated a full response at the county’s Emergency Operations Center as if it were a real event.

These emergency preparations in Daytona Beach are a reminder that such a nightmare could once again become reality, and they reemphasize the importance of the new state-mandated inspections and reserve studies/funding beginning this year for thousands of condominium communities.

Another such reminder came in the form of recent updates by federal investigators on their probe into the catastrophic 2021 collapse. Their revelations are beginning to provide insights into the factors that led to the devastating tragedy.

The investigators and officials with the National Institute of Standards and Technology reported they have now narrowed their focus down to approximately two dozen hypotheses for the initiation of the failure and the progression of the global collapse. That said, each hypothesis may have many potential initiation points, and they point out that collectively, “there are hundreds of possible failure initiation points in the structural and geotechnical elements.”

Using visual evidence, they confirmed that the building’s ground level pool deck collapsed into the basement parking garage “more than four minutes before the general collapse of the tower,” and those failures, along with the columns supporting the tower, are among the top issues now being probed. They further reported that, while there is strong evidence that the collapse initiated in the pool deck, they have “not yet ruled out a failure initiation in some part of the tower that precipitated a collapse in the pool deck.”

The investigators also believe that the tragedy may have been decades in the making, and the building’s integrity had likely been compromised by its original design and construction. At the presentation disclosing their findings, they discussed how parts of the Champlain Towers South structural design in the pool deck and support columns did not meet the building code at the time of its completion in 1981. Deficiencies were found in the building’s steel reinforcements, concrete alignment and the strength of the columns and floor concrete. The experts hope to learn whether such practices were isolated or may have been common in the 1970s and early 1980s era of real estate development.

In the months leading up to the collapse, the building was facing major structural repairs, and the president of the association had noted “concrete deterioration is accelerating” in a letter to the owners in April 2021, just two months before tragedy struck. The association had approved an assessment for $15 million in repairs, but it began the process more than two years after receiving a report chronicling major structural damage in the building.

“There were indications of severe distress in the pool deck at least three weeks before the collapse,” investigators said during the presentation. The tower’s residents had reported hearing “knocking” and “hammering” sounds leading up to the incident, and the investigators believe that may indicate the slab’s reinforcement had fractured. They also discussed evidence that the slab had been sagging, exposed to water and corroded in some areas.

The presentation also included a discussion of the pool deck landscaping planters, which had become weighed down beyond their original design. The experts said they have identified several scenarios in which the columns supporting the tower’s southern edge could have failed, forcing their load to be distributed elsewhere and triggering the collapse. The columns could also have been compromised by corrosion, water exposure and poor installation.

Once the probe is completed in the fall of 2025, NIST plans to release a multi-volume final report and online presentation on its findings. Its website states:

“There are millions of high-rise condominium units in Florida alone, many of them aging structures near the ocean. While a NIST investigation is intended to identify the cause of the Champlain Towers South collapse, it could also uncover potential issues in other similar buildings nearby and throughout the nation.”

Indeed, the prospect that such issues were only present at this one particular ill-fated oceanfront tower seems somewhat implausible, as it did to Florida’s lawmakers in the following years when they passed stringent new inspections and reserves studies/funding requirements. Those requirements will now be starting to come due for many communities, and predictably their owners are lamenting the associated cost increases. . .

Jeffrey concludes his article by noting that as Florida’s condominium communities continue to map out their options for contending with their growing annual budgets, owners should be reminded by the recent emergency response training exercise and NIST report update of the magnitude of what is at stake.  He cautions that such costs for structural elements and repairs can no longer be ignored in accordance with state law, so they will somehow need to be borne either by the current owners of older condominiums or by future buyers/investors.

Our firm salutes Jeffrey for sharing his takeaways from the recent training exercise in Volusia County and the NIST report update for Florida condominium associations facing new state mandates.