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Home » Engineering Firm Warned of Systemic Issue With Miami-Area Condo Building Before Deadly Collapse

Engineering Firm Warned of Systemic Issue With Miami-Area Condo Building Before Deadly Collapse

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An engineering firm in 2018 warned the condo association of Champlain Towers South, the Miami-area building that partially collapsed this week, that there was a “major error” in its design that allowed water to pool near its base.

The installation of waterproofing on a flat deck surface, rather than a sloped surface that would allow water to drain, was “a systemic issue for this building structure,” according to the firm’s report. The town of Surfside, Fla., the site of the incident, released the report on its website along with other documents on the 40-year-old building late Friday.

More documents released Saturday indicate a condo association official sent the report mentioning these issues to a Surfside building official in November 2018, evidence at least one person in town government knew of these issues, too.

However, the same engineering firm created another report citing an inspection from about the same time in 2018 that gave the building its top grade on several measures, according to the town of Surfside. The town took the unusual step of adding commentary to that report on its website, where it posted Friday, saying it didn’t receive this additional report until after the building’s collapse.

Engineers and real-estate professionals who reviewed the reports said they pointed to serious issues that could have been contributing factors to the collapse, but they found no wording that indicated that the structure was in imminent danger at the time.

The duo of reports from the engineering firm provide a seemingly conflicting message to the urgency of addressing the problems. Even the report with the “major error” wording had that information on page seven of a nine-page report and didn’t speak to the potential consequences of not addressing the problem immediately.

Rescuers combed through debris Friday while searching for survivors at a partially collapsed 12-story condo tower in Surfside, Fla. The families of those unaccounted for continue to wait for news about their loved ones. Photo: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue/Associated Press

“The main issue with this building structure is that the entrance drive/pool deck/planter waterproofing is laid on a flat structure,” said the October 2018 report from the firm, Maryland-based Morabito Consultants. “Since the reinforced concrete slab is not sloped to drain, the water sits on the waterproofing until it evaporates.” The report was addressed to the condo association’s treasurer at that time.

The report called this flat-surface waterproofing a major error in the development of the original documents for the 12-floor building by the architect and consulting engineers.

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the report said.

In a statement Saturday, the engineering firm said it was deeply troubled by the building collapse and was working closely with authorities to understand why the structure failed.

“Among other things, our report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public,” said Morabito Consultants, referencing the report it sent to the condo association in October 2018.

Still, another 14-page report, which cites an inspection started on Aug. 1, 2018, and completed early the next month, called the condition of the structure “good” on five measures, noting that there was a lack of apparent issues like bulging and settling. That report also cited the waterproofing problem but called cracking in the concrete framing system: “Not significant.”

Search-and-rescue experts looked for survivors in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo on Friday.


Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

The town of Surfside said it didn’t receive this 14-page report until Thursday evening, after the building collapsed, when the town says Frank Morabito, president of the engineering firm, sent it to town officials. The town, in a note atop the document—which it released with other paperwork on the building’s history—called it an “unverified report” that wasn’t formally submitted or authorized by the property owner. The report was undated.

A spokesman for Morabito Consultants declined to comment on the 14-page report. Kenneth Direktor, a lawyer for the condo association, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the reports. A person who responded to a reporter’s call to a number associated with the condo association’s former treasurer declined to comment.

Mr. Direktor said in a previous interview that the condo association was planning both structural and electrical work related to the building’s 40-year recertification.

It isn’t clear whether the problems that Mr. Morabito’s firm identified are linked to the catastrophic failure and collapse of the building at approximately 1:30 a.m. Thursday, which killed at least five. Engineering experts have warned that it could take months or even more than a year to fully understand what brought the building down.

The town on Friday released an email chain that showed the current condo secretary forwarded the nine-page report, which identified the alleged design error to former town building official Rosendo Prieto in late 2018. Mr. Prieto, who has since left the town government, couldn’t be reached for comment late Saturday.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, who wasn’t mayor in 2018, said late Saturday: “The documents pointed to many deficiencies that needed to be addressed and should have been addressed.”

Fire at Site of Condo Collapse Hinders Search

Florida officials were pressing ahead with efforts to find survivors among the 156 people who remain unaccounted for.

Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team looked for possible survivors in the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla., on Sunday.

giorgio viera/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team looked for possible survivors in the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla., on Sunday.

giorgio viera/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Eliana Salzhauer, a town commissioner, said Surfside brought in an engineering firm experienced with disasters to assess what happened to this building as well as make sure others in the town are structurally sound. This includes a twin structure, Champlain Towers North, near the South tower’s site.

Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of real estate at the Tulane School of Architecture in New Orleans, said it is clear from the October 2018 report that structural elements of Champlain Towers South were “inundated in water and totally degraded.” He said he believes it was “compromising the structural integrity.”

The water-intrusion issues outlined by the engineering firm could point to one part in a series of contributing factors that compromised the building, said Roberto Leon, who teaches construction engineering at Virginia Tech and is an expert in structural failures. He also noted that the reports don’t signal any concern of impending failure.

Meanwhile, Miami real-estate agents and lawyers said an inspection report revealing such significant threats to the structure in a building this age would be unusual and some said potentially concerning.

Mr. Burkett said the city might offer to relocate residents who wish to evacuate a nearby condo tower, Champlain Towers North. Mr. Burkett said the north tower was “basically identical” to the one that collapsed, making it a safety concern.

Neisen Kasdin, a managing partner of the Miami office of Akerman LLP and former mayor of Miami Beach, said buildings in the area are routinely inspected when they are around 40 years old, and it is unusual for such inspections to turn up structural problems.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett spoke with a family that is still seeking a family member in connection with the collapse.


Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

“Typically it does not involve the major structural components that support the building, but sometimes it does,” he said.

Yet, when a report does include this kind of wording, it often isn’t met with urgency by condo boards, one engineer says.

“There are numerous parking garage slabs that are similarly written up in reports and not dealt with,” said Nat Oppenheimer, a New York-based principal at the Silman structural engineering firm.

Nelson Gonzalez, a senior vice president at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices EWM Realty, said he would have counseled clients not to purchase a unit in such a building, not because he would be concerned it would collapse but because he would worry the owners might be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars of assessments.

Mr. Gonzalez said his son, who works for him, was showing units in the building about four weeks ago and noticed the balconies were dilapidated in a way that suggested they had sustained water damage. Some of the photos from the engineering reports showed pictures of degraded materials on the balconies.

“A lot of the balconies were of concern to the point that he didn’t want to walk out on” them, he said.

Alberto and Isabel Aguero, who bought a one-bedroom unit on the 11th floor in 2019, said they received word a few months ago that they would have to pay an $80,000 assessment for a range of building repairs and upgrades. Ms. Aguero, 67, said owners of larger units were told they would owe more than $100,000.

Ms. Aguero said they hadn’t known about the Morabito reports or about any structural concerns, until seeing news reports Saturday.

The Agueros, who still live in New Jersey, had planned to move to Surfside full time for their retirement but the pandemic kept them away until March of this year. The couple’s 42-year-old son and his family were in the building when it collapsed and managed to escape.

“You could see things that needed repair like by the swimming pool, a couple bricks missing from the walls, things like that.” Mr. Aguero said. But overall, he said, “I didn’t have any major concerns.”

Florida Condo Collapse

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Write to Jon Kamp at [email protected], Will Parker at [email protected] and Deborah Acosta at [email protected]

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