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After Surfside tower collapse, condo residents in Florida and beyond wonder if they need to worry

By Rosa Flores, Jason Morris and Ray Sanchez, CNN

Salomon Gold expects to celebrate his 90th birthday next month in his Champlain Towers North condo in Florida, where for decades he has enjoyed views of the turquoise blue waves of the Atlantic lapping on Surfside Beach.

“You know how much they charge in the hotel next door for a night? One thousand dollars,” said Gold, wearing a driver’s cap over bespectacled eyes and sporting a thick, white mustache on his balcony, his wife Cila at his side. “I have it here for free.”

Since the partial collapse last month of the twin Champlain Towers South killed at least 100 people just down the block, some residents in Gold’s building have chosen to evacuate. Not him.

“I am confident that this building is safe,” he said. “You know you have twin families. I mean two brothers and the same genetics. But they are not the same. One can be a criminal and the other can be a physician.”

But some of Gold’s neighbors and residents of other coastal properties in Florida and beyond are not as confident. They have been feeling anxious and unnerved since the June 24 tragedy.

“Every resident of every association, every condo, was taking this personally. Every professional was taking this personally and really was struck by it in a very emotional way,” Tom Skiba, CEO of the Community Associations Institute, said after a brief visit to Surfside following the collapse.

Those worries are being felt outside South Florida, where emergency re-inspections of other aging buildings prompted evacuations in at least four other residential structures deemed unsafe.

“Not just our organization but every professional in the industry, every board, every manager got a huge volume of calls. Just people asking questions: Could this happen in my community, in my building? Should I be concerned about this?” said Skiba, whose organization advocates for homeowners associations.

‘Some people are especially worried’

While the cause of the Surfside collapse remains under investigation the disaster has prompted reviews of highrise condos buildings in the area.

“People are worried,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said. “Some people are especially worried.”

One South Florida building that has raised alarms is Crestview Towers, about seven miles north of the Surfside condo. The city of North Miami Beach earlier this month ordered its immediate closure and the evacuation of about 300 people after a report determined the structure is unsafe.

“What upset me the most is that management knew about it since January,” Crestview resident Harold Dauphin said of the building’s structural and electrical issues.

Crestview Towers was deemed structurally and electrically unsafe based on a delinquent recertification report for the almost 50-year-old building, according to City Manager Arthur H. Sorey III.

Crestview’s attorney did not respond to multiple CNN requests for comment.

The report was dated January 11, 2021, and was submitted on July 2, Sorey said. In it, an engineer retained by the condominium association chronicled the building’s structural and electrical flaws.

“As a resident we didn’t realize the situation,” lamented Estefania Grajales, who also lives at Crestview.

In fact, Dauphin said he first learned of the evacuations when he was picking up his 7-year-old child from camp. As he approached the residence recently, he said he saw helicopters flying above and police on the premises — going floor to floor — assisting with the evacuation.

“I understand the call,” he said of the evacuation order. “It’s a great call knowing what happened at Surfside. So it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Before it collapsed, Champlain Towers South had been visited regularly by officials in recent years. Inspectors from the town of Surfside conducted permit-related inspections at the condo tower more than once a week on average in 2018 and 2019, according to a CNN analysis of town records.

But even as an engineer hired by the building’s condo board warned of “major structural damage” on the property — and as residents squabbled over funding for expensive repairs — no record appears of town officials raising red flags. Their job was to ensure compliance with permits for plumbing upgrades, air conditioning repairs and window installations — not to evaluate the structure of the building.

The Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, which has been named in lawsuits accusing it of failing to maintain the building, released a statement earlier this month saying: “Answers will take time as part of a comprehensive investigation and we will continue to work with city, state, local, and federal officials in their rescue efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy.”

‘What is the status our buildings here?’

Concerns over the structural integrity of condo buildings go beyond the highrise residents of Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline.

About 30 million people live in condo buildings across the US, according to the Community Associations Institute.

In New York, three state senators are urging the state Division of Building Standards and Codes to strengthen requirements for aging highrise buildings in coastal communities, including mandating annual inspections.

“We share some similarities with the Florida highrise shoreline,” said New York State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Island. “We ask ourselves the question: What is the status of our buildings here?”

In a letter earlier this month, Kaminsky and two other state senators also asked the division’s code development unit to reassess standards for construction in high-risk coastal areas.

“We are hearing from worried constituents who wonder about the structural integrity of their buildings,” the letter said.

‘There might be people who don’t like the answer’

Skiba said rules on condo reserves — or how much money the boards should have on hand to repair a building — vary by state. But the Surfside collapse highlights the need for a reserve standard to address structural integrity.

“The reserve standards don’t address structural issues,” he said. “They address replacement items that are usually addressed due to age or wear and tear.”

An independent budget review had warned the Champlain Towers South condo association that its financial reserves were critically underfunded in the face of urgently needed structural repairs a little more than a year before the building came down, according a document obtained by CNN.

Joel Figueroa-Vallines, a fellow with the American Society of Civil Engineers, expressed concern about hundreds of aging properties in South Florida.

“We know that there may have not been proper maintenance or quality control,” he said of the Surfside condo building. “So let’s get out there. Let’s talk to the associations. Let’s try to inspect them and then go from there.”

Allyn Kilsheimer, an 80-year-old structural engineer and veteran of forensic investigations at catastrophes like the Pentagon post-9/11 and the collapse of a pedestrian bridge at Miami’s Florida International University, has been hired by the town of Surfside.

Kilsheimer has been surveying the Champlain Towers North building, ordering tiles pulled up from the pool deck and concrete samples drilled from walls for a series of tests he hopes will explain what led to the collapse of Champlain Towers South.

“There’s nothing that I know so far here that tells me this is symptomatic of condominiums in the United States of America,” he said.

His work is but one part of overlapping probes that involve homicide detectives, local prosecutors and government engineers and could take years to complete.

“We’ll figure it out,” Kilsheimer said. “There might be people who don’t like the answer. But we’ll figure it out.”

The north tower, a sister of Champlain Towers South, had the same design architect and structural engineer.

“The same construction, the same developer, the same name, probably the same materials,” Burkett said.

Gold has lived in the north tower since 1981, the year it was built, and was president of its condo association for a decade. He has no plans to leave though many neighbors have left.

“I don’t blame them for moving out,” he said. “Everybody has to make their own decisions. It’s like flying. Some people are afraid to fly.”

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