The Warnings Were Mounting At A Florida Condo. Officials Demanded Only Minor Repairs

Jun 30, 2021
Originally published on July 1, 2021 3:00 am

Just weeks before Champlain Towers South collapsed, town officials in Surfside, Fla., were demanding immediate changes on the property — but all of their requirements focused on relatively minor concerns.

A poolside gate needed repair. A hedge had to be trimmed to accommodate emergency vehicles. Paving stones had to be replaced.

None of the town's orders urged a swift response to growing concerns about the building's structural soundness, identified in repeated warnings shared with Surfside officials beginning in 2018.

Indeed, despite close and ongoing scrutiny of the condo under a regulatory process created by Miami-Dade County to protect residents of older buildings, officials never demanded action even as concerns escalated.

That's according to a survey of hundreds of pages of documents acquired by NPR or released publicly by town officials in Surfside.

The condominium collapsed in catastrophic fashion last Thursday. Eighteen residents are confirmed dead, with 145 still missing, according to the latest information.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told reporters this week he wasn't in office during the period from 2018 through 2020 as concerns about the building escalated. He was elected in March 2020.

"I wasn't there," Burkett said, adding that a thorough investigation of the town's interaction with the condo and its managers would be conducted.

"I've asked our clerk and our city attorney and our city manager to dig out every piece of correspondence relating to that building and put it on our website."

A "recertification" process and growing concerns

In 2018, town officials in Surfside began a "recertification" process designed to assess the building's structural soundness as it approached the 40-year mark after construction.

That process is mandated under building codes implemented by Miami-Dade County.

In an email sent in November 2018, town building official Ross Prieto described meeting with residents of Champlain Towers South.

"It went very well," Prieto wrote in the memo, addressed to Surfside's then-town manager, Guillermo Olmedillo. "All main concerns over their forty year recertification process were addressed."

According to separate minutes of that meeting compiled by the condo's board and acquired by NPR, Prieto assured residents they were safe and the building was "in very good shape."

What's now clear from emails and other documents is Prieto had already reviewed a troubling engineering study that warned of serious structural erosion.

That nine-page report, completed in October 2018, urged major repairs to the building "in the near future."

Speaking with the Miami Herald, Prieto said he had no memory of reading the engineering study. "I don't know anything about it," he told the newspaper. "That's 2018."

But documents reviewed by NPR indicate Prieto and other town officials continued to have regular interaction with the condominium's board in the months that followed as well as with the condo's consultants and engineers.

As the recertification process advanced, the town also continued to hear from concerned residents.

In January 2019, resident Mara Chouela emailed Prieto, alarmed by a construction project underway next door to Champlain Towers South.

"[They] are digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building," Chouela wrote.

She urged town officials to inspect the activity.

"There is nothing for me to check," Prieto replied, urging the condominium association instead to hire a consultant to monitor for any damage.

Image from a 2020 Morabito Consultant document acquired by NPR outlining repair work for the Champlain South Tower. Photo shows serious erosion of concrete "on the pool concrete walls" visible in the garage.
Condo Association Documents Obtained By NPR Anonymous Source

NPR has been unable to reach Prieto, who no longer works for Surfside and who is currently on leave from his job as a contract building inspector for the town of Doral, Fla.

Documents show other Surfside town officials, including Olmedillo, also visited the condominium in 2019.

Despite a provision in the town's building code that allows officials to demand "repairs or modifications" within 150 days, there's no sign officials urged an immediate response to concerns about the building's decaying concrete and steel structure.

Town demands minor changes as major repairs languish

It's not certain that any of the problems identified as part of the recertification process contributed directly to the building's collapse.

But a letter written ahead of an April condo board meeting, acquired by NPR, shows the 40-year review continued to reveal deepening concerns.

Estimated cost of repairs had ballooned to more than $16.2 million.

"The 40-year building inspection is required by law and covers life/safety issues such as structural and electrical," wrote Jean Wodnicki, the condo board president. "The concrete deterioration is accelerating," she warned.

A later email sent ahead of a May condo board meeting ratcheted up the language, acknowledging "the desperate needs of the building."

"This will be a challenging time for all of us at Champlain Towers South," that memo said. "Our building has been neglected for some time. ... It would be irresponsible to continue to ignore these needs."

Image from a 2020 Morabito Consultants document acquired by NPR that proposes major repairs to the Champlain Tower South. Photo shows a "rusted steal tube column" in one of the staircases.
Condo Association Documents Obtained By NPR Anonymous Source

It's unclear from the documents how much of this updated information was shared with town officials.

But documents do reveal regular inspections by the town were "ongoing."

They also show regular interactions between the town and the condominium's representatives that continued until roughly a month before the structure collapsed.

There's no sign of urgency on the part of officials about resident safety.

The town did regularly demand the condominium association make immediate changes — setting deadlines and threatening fines — but only to relatively minor cosmetic features.

In 2020, condo managers were ordered to alter lighting on the structure to protect turtle nesting sites on the nearby beach.

Last month, the town's code compliance division sent another official letter demanding the condo address other minor safety issues, including replacement of an exit light.

That work was required to be finished by June 25. The condo collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The death toll from the condominium collapse in Surfside, Fla., has reached 18. And now NPR is learning new details about concerns over the building before the accident. Our team has found that Champlain Towers South was closely scrutinized, inspected and monitored by government officials in the months before it collapsed, but building inspectors never demanded major repairs. Documents obtained by NPR show little sign of urgency, even as warnings about the condos' safety continued to grow. NPR's Brian Mann has been reporting on this and joins us now.

Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so at the beginning of all this, town officials had been suggesting that this building just wasn't on their radar before the collapse last week. Tell us, what do these documents show that contradicts that?

MANN: Yeah, they do tell a very different story, Ailsa. This building got a lot of attention from the town of Surfside beginning in 2018. That's when building officials were given this troubling engineering report that showed real structural concerns. And what NPR has now learned is that after that moment, town officials continued to interact with the building and its managers frequently. And that's because a process had begun. This is a process mandated by Miami-Dade County for buildings as they approach their 40-year mark after construction. It's a review that's supposed to keep residents of these older buildings safe. And this is the heartbreaking part. In a way, it almost worked. These documents show that the review found really serious problems. What appears to be missing is any follow-through.

CHANG: Right, you found that town officials actually did mandate some immediate actions. What did they order?

MANN: Again, this part is troubling. The town kept ordering the managers of the condo to do things like change paving stones and repair a gate. They were ordered in 2020 to alter outside lighting to protect nearby turtle habitat on the beach. Those orders included deadlines and the threat of fines. They included on-site inspections and meetings with town officials. What's missing is any sense of urgency in the documents about the building's bigger problems - you know, those concrete and steel foundations that were clearly decaying. Town codes we found allow government officials to mandate repairs within 150 days as part of the 40-year recertification process, but months and then years went by without any order of that kind being issued.

CHANG: Wow. Now, I know that NPR has acquired more documents that show a growing fear among some on the condo association's board about the building's condition. And I understand that one memo sent earlier this year to residents described the, quote, "desperate needs of the building." Were those warnings also shared with town officials?

MANN: We don't know yet. Government regulators were clearly at the building. They were conducting inspections. They were communicating with these engineers and contractors as this 40-year recertification process advanced. It's not yet clear exactly how much the town knew about these later engineering inspections that showed deepening problems. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett has ordered a thorough review of what happened here. He says all the documents about these communications between the town and the building's managers - he says they will eventually be made public.

CHANG: But why was the repair work delayed so long?

MANN: Yeah, the documents we've looked at suggest there was real disagreement and infighting among condo residents about the costs of the repair work, which had ballooned to an estimated $16 million. Earlier this year, condo board president Jean Wodnicki sent an email to residents saying that this 40-year recertification process did require them to finally get the work done. And in that email, she said inspections conducted as part of the government-mandated review had turned up issues that she described - and I'm quoting here - as "life and safety issues." But again, for reasons we don't understand yet, Ailsa, the town kept focusing on relatively minor issues. One order sent to the condo last month ordered managers to replace outdoor lighting by June 25. Of course, the building collapsed early in the morning, a day before that deadline.

CHANG: That is NPR's Brian Mann looking at how a government oversight program designed to monitor the safety of older buildings in Miami-Dade County failed to prevent the Surfside condo disaster.

Brian, thank you so much.

MANN: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.