Experts have yet to identify the factors that prompted the collapse of a condo in Surfside, Florida. Knowing what brought the 12-story building down will be essential to evaluating the safety of other buildings, as well as to determine legal liability for residents who seek to recover damages.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle committed to having a grand jury study the building’s collapse and start paving the way to accountability for the disaster.
The sudden crumbling of the Champlain Towers South has left experts perplexed. Several theories, yet untested and unverified, have begun to emerge.
Concrete Support System Failure
One engineer, John Pistorino, investigated the collapse and struggled to explain the footage from a surveillance video, despite multiple viewings. “It’s unexplainable,” he told Miami’s Local 10 News, adding, “Concrete gives you a warning. It doesn’t fail that fast.”
Pistorino’s perspective meshes with evidence from a letter the building’s condo association president, Jean Wodnicki, sent months before the collapse. The letter warned residents about a failing concrete support system with damage that was accelerating and “would begin to multiply exponentially” in the years that approach.
Wodnicki urged residents to fund repairs exceeding $15 million. “When you can visually see the concrete spalling [cracking], that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface,” Wodnicki wrote in the letter.
The deterioration of concrete was first reported in October 2018 when engineer Frank P. Morabito composed a structural survey report showing failed waterproofing below the entrance drive and pool deck, permitting leaks. Photos from the earlier inspection report show hairline cracking on the floor slabs’ underside. The inspection report also conveyed deterioration in the concrete columns, walls, and beams.
Morabito’s report made clear that the required repairs were essential to “maintaining the structural integrity” of the condo. The engineer included an elaborate plan for repairs that would help the building pass a 40-year recertification requirement.
According to a statement from the engineer’s firm, Morabito Consultants, those repairs had not commenced when the condo fell. However, a former member of the condo board revealed that the board had initiated a $15 million construction project to resolve issues outlined in Morabito’s report. It is important to work through this discrepancy because, if this leaking contributed to last week’s disaster, one can draw a line of accountability to parties who failed to address the problem.
Putting these repairs aside, it is worth noting that, according to Morabito, the problem at Champlain Towers south originated when the building was constructed. To facilitate water run-off, the waterproofing should have been laid on a slope, Morabito explained. Instead, it was laid on a flat slab.
For reasons unknown, Morabito did not submit this report to the city of Surfside until after last week’s disaster, The Washington Post reports. However, ABC News reports that a Surfside building official, Rosendo “Ross” Prieto, reportedly is quoted in board meeting minutes as saying that Morabito’s report showed that “the building is in very good shape.”
Pistorino was one of the authors of the Miami-Dade County code, reports 4 CBS Miami. Early in his career, he made a connection between the area’s uniquely salty and humid climate and the collapse of a downtown DEA Miami building in 1974. That collapse caused the death of seven DEA employees, and it inspired Pistorino with the idea of a mandated building recertification 40 years after construction (as the DEA building was 40 years old when it fell).
Saltwater is particularly corrosive in older concrete, and a former maintenance manager at the condo building (from 1995 to 2000) told CBS Miami that “Any time that we had high tides away from the ordinary, any King Tide or anything like that, we would have a lot of saltwater come in through the bottom of the of the foundation,” he claimed, adding they had to use two large pumps to try and remove the rising water. “But it was so much water, all the time, that the pumps never could keep up with it.” This factor will be considered as investigators explore the impact that such environmental conditions might have had on the Surfside condo’s structure.
Potential environmental factors also include barrier island erosion. The town of Surfside exists on a barrier island, which absorbs the impact of wind and water from hurricanes and storm surges. This type of formation consists of shifting sand, with its chief role being that of “frontline coastal defense,” reports MSN News.
The Florida landscape is dotted with sinkholes, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In 2018, experts reported 400 sinkholes in the state since Hurricane Irma made its debut.
These closed depressions typically manifest when sediments on the surface settle into underground voids caused when groundwater dissolves in bedrock beneath.
Sinkholes can also result from other activities beneath the surface, including the compression of layers when water is removed, the decomposition of organic debris, broken or collapsed sewer pipes, drainpipes, or septic tanks.
Dade County’s Mayor Daniella Levine Cava made a statement that no evidence points to the likelihood of a sinkhole causing the Surfside condo’s collapse.
Subsidence Worsened by Rise in Sea Level
The ground beneath Surfside showed signs of sinking (or subsidence) as far back as the 1990s, according to a report in which a Florida International University Professor analyzed space-based radar data. FIU Institute of Environment Professor Shimon Wdowinski singled out Champlain Towers South condominium as a location where land subsidence was detected between 1993 and 1999. The professor reports that satellite images showed the buildings moving, although he states that land subsidence would not be likely to be the sole cause of a building’s collapse.
Vibrations From Nearby Construction
While the luxury, 18-story luxury tower, Eighty Seven Park, was under construction in Miami Beach, Champlain Tower residents complained of vibrations and shaking. In January 2019, one member of the condo board wrote a letter of complaint to Surfside officials expressing his concern about the Surfside building’s structure because construction workers were digging too close to the Champlain Tower.
The response from Surfside officials was that they had no jurisdiction to stop the Eighty Seven Park construction. They suggested that the condo board could hire an outside consultant to evaluate their concerns.
Inspection Process in Need of an Upgrade
Given the number of potential causal and contributing factors in the Champlain Towers South, some people are questioning the span of 40 years from the building’s construction before it was due for mandated recertification inspection.
By some reports, the investigation that solves what caused the Surfside disaster will take up to two years. Victims of the building’s collapse are not waiting, with several having already filed lawsuits, according to the Miami Herald.