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What we know about the damage and repairs to the partially collapsed Surfside condo building


By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

As rescuers keep sifting through the rubble of a South Florida condo building, investigators have been searching for answers as to what triggered the collapse.

Teams have recovered the bodies of 18 people, and 145 more people remain unaccounted for.

As families mourn and worry for their loved ones, some residents and officials are criticizing the management of the building, saying more should have been done to prevent the structure from crashing down in the middle of the night last week.

Officials say they still haven’t found what triggered the collapse.

From an early construction halt to assurances that the building was fine, here is what we know so far about the damage and repairs the building underwent.

Early halts to construction

Before Champlain Towers South and its sister building opened, there was controversy around its construction, which violated local regulations, documents show.

The Surfside acting town manager at the time, George Curti, told the building complex’s contractor in a Dec. 2, 1980, letter that “you are instructed to immediately cease any further construction on any penthouses” at either of the Champlain Towers buildings. The town attorney had determined that the penthouses were “a violation of the Code of the Town of Surfside,” Curti wrote.

The following week, the town council passed an ordinance granting the buildings an exception, allowing the penthouse construction to go forward, Curti wrote in a follow-up letter on Dec. 11.

The decades-old controversy was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Monday. The issue was over the buildings’ height: The penthouses had not been in the original plans and they brought both buildings above the town’s 12-story height limit, the Journal reported.

The 2018 report

Maryland-based Morabito Consultants performed a structural analysis of the building as part of Champlain Towers South’s 40-year recertification effort — a stringent process for updates and improvements enacted after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“Morabito Consultants provided the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association with detailed findings and recommendations nearly three years ago regarding the structural repairs that were needed on the building to ensure the safety of the residents and the public,” a Morabito spokesman said in a statement to CNN.

Morabito has said previously it “provided the condominium association with an estimate of the probable costs to make the extensive and necessary repairs. 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.”

But in the minutes from a November 2018 meeting, Surfside building official Rosendo Prieto appears not to stress the damage.

“Structural engineer report was reviewed by Mr. Prieto,” the minutes said, in an apparent reference to a 2018 report from structural engineer Frank Morabito, which detailed cracking and dilapidating concrete in the parking garage underneath the tower, among other significant issues. Although Prieto noted that the report “was not in the format for the 40 year certification he determined the necessary data was collected and it appears the building is in very good shape,” the minutes say.

Morabito Consultants’ structural field survey had noted “abundant cracking and spalling” in concrete columns and walls, “exposed, deteriorating rebar” and failing waterproofing beneath the pool deck and entrance drive that was causing “major structural damage.”

Prieto no longer works for Surfside and was serving as the interim building official for the city of Doral. He has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

Eliana Salzhauer, the commissioner of Surfside, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that she thinks the condo association didn’t do enough.

“In hindsight, they should have made more noise. They had this report, they had a report, it said very clearly, ‘Your building is in bad shape.'”

Salzhauer said that the condo association should have made it “clear enough so that (residents) are concerned.”

A representative of the Champlain Towers South condo association declined to comment this week.

‘The concrete deterioration is accelerating’

A photograph from 2018 shows the early stages of a crack in the concrete in the pool equipment room in the building.

Engineers and experts consulted by CNN said it appears the same crack is visible in the 2021 photograph of the room, which was published earlier this week by the Miami Herald, although its condition appears worse in the more recent photograph.

The cause of the deterioration is not clear.

After inspecting the building in 2018, Morabito wrote in his report that “failed waterproofing” below the pool deck was “causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas” and warned that failure to replace it in the near future would cause “concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”

A 2021 letter to the building residents from the condominium association’s president confirmed that the exponential deterioration had indeed taken place in the interim years.

“The concrete deterioration is accelerating,” wrote Jean Wodnicki, the association president. “The observable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial [2018] inspection.”

The experts CNN spoke to said that the progression seen in the crack between the two images could be an indication of the deterioration caused by the waterproofing problem described by Morabito. Or, some said, the concrete around the crack could have simply fallen off during the three-year gap to reveal the deeper fissure seen in the 2021 photograph.

“Once deterioration like this starts, it’s insidious, it just continues. Unless you do something about it, the whole thing is going to fall apart, all of the concrete is going to fall apart,” said Matthys Levy, a consulting engineer and author of books including “Why Buildings Fall Down.”

The engineers consulted by CNN were not in agreement that a failure in the area of the pool equipment room or around the pool deck could have caused the building’s collapse, but many noted that the damage seen in the room was likely indicative of poor maintenance throughout the whole building.

“It just generally shows what a crappy condition the concrete was in. You can draw whatever conclusions you want — that maybe the rest of the concrete was just as bad,” Levy said.

An estimated $15 million in repairs needed

The condo association debated an estimated $9 million in repairs to the building in 2018, and disputes over the lackluster response in tackling the repairs led to five of the seven board members resigning that year, the Washington Post reported, citing board meeting minutes and association president Anette Goldstein’s resignation letter.

“We work for months to go in one direction and at the very last minute objections are raised that should have been discussed and resolved right in the beginning,” Goldstein wrote in her September 2019 resignation letter that was obtained by the Post.

Goldstein and some of the others would later return to the board — one of the members just three weeks after stepping down — documents indicate, the Post reported.

The paper said its efforts to reach almost everyone who had served on the board since 2018 were unsuccessful. Two of them are reported to be missing, according to the Post.

The estimated cost for repairs had grown to about $15 million by the time the work was approved by the board in 2021, according to an assessment letter obtained by CNN. Those costs were to be paid by the residents.

2020 letter highlights extensive damage and attempted repairs

A 2020 letter from Morabito Consultants to Wodnicki gave a nine-page summary of the extent of the damage and the work that was being done to address it.

All the loose concrete around the perimeter of the pool pump room that showed signs of cracking, spalling and deterioration and which presented a “fall hazard” was removed by a concrete restoration firm, according to the work summary.

But not all of the work could be completed at the time, according to the letter.

Morabito Consultants noted that they could not perform full restoration and repair on the pool corbel or on the wall in the pool pump room because “areas of deteriorated concrete appeared to penetrate deep into wall/corbel construction” and that “aggressive excavation of concrete at the severely deteriorated pool corbel could affect the stability of the remaining adjacent concrete constructions.”

Another reason given for the work not being completed was “proper ICRI compliant repairs” required access to the inside of the pool, which according to the document, “was to remain in service for the duration of this work.”

There is currently no indication that the concrete deterioration was a contributing factor to the collapse of the building last month, but it does highlight some the major repair work needed at the Champlain Tower South condominium complex.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Alta Spells, Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman, Casey Tolan, Rosa Flores, Camille Furst, David Shortell, Shawn Nottingham and Gregory Lemos contributed to this report.

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