Condo collapse in Surfside triggers fear in coastal cities

FORT LAUDERDALE — As the world spotlight shines on Surfside’s condo collapse, other coastal cities in South Florida are asking the question: Could it happen here?

Those same cities want to make sure it doesn’t.

Miami-Dade County is already planning an audit of older buildings after Thursday’s collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo.

Coastal cities from Fort Lauderdale to Hollywood, Hallandale Beach and Boca Raton are doing the same.

“The tragedy that happened in Surfside certainly is a wakeup call for all communities with buildings that were built 40 and 50 years ago,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said Sunday. “We have too many buildings, too many people, too many lives at risk to ignore the potential of what could happen.”

Trantalis says he plans to urge the city commission to move forward with recommendations on how Fort Lauderdale can ensure the integrity of its buildings, especially those along the ocean. Those are the buildings more vulnerable to saltwater intrusion, rising sea levels and climate change.

Construction equipment is seen Sunday near the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo that collapsed Thursday in Surfside.

Construction equipment is seen Sunday near the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo that collapsed Thursday in Surfside. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Experts say it will likely take months to determine why the 40-year-old tower in Surfside fell. But an engineering firm in 2018 warned that a concrete slab beneath the pool and entrance drive was not sloped, allowing water to pool on top — leading to significant deterioration of the concrete. It’s unclear whether that damage contributed to the building’s collapse.

“I think we are all eager to know what happened so we can learn lessons to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy said. “We need to know what happened here to know what rules need to change.”

Trantalis eventually wants to put the spotlight on buildings throughout Fort Lauderdale, not just along the coast.

“And that means an aggressive investigation of the underground infrastructure on buildings greater than 10 stories tall and older than 40 years,” he said. “Let’s start with the buildings on the ocean and on the Intracoastal, where the contact with saltwater is greater. And then we can go from there.”

South Florida is a challenging environment not friendly to building materials in general, says Miroslav Mladenovic, president of M2E Consulting Engineers, a firm that regularly deals with 40-year building certifications.

“We have water to the east — the ocean,” he said. “We have water to the west — the Everglades. We have underground water — the aquifer; and we have water above — hurricanes.”

People on the beach look at the 12-story Champlain Towers South Condo that partially collapsed on Thursday in Surfside.

People on the beach look at the 12-story Champlain Towers South Condo that partially collapsed on Thursday in Surfside. (Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Architect Reinaldo Borges says buildings with underground garages, like the one at Champlain Towers South, are common in South Florida because parking garages are ugly. And with land at a premium, developers want to maximize space.

“When you have a tight site and you are trying to maximize the project and reduce the visual aspect of the garage, a lot of these structures have their parking underneath them.”

That brings challenges, though. The water has to be kept out and away from the concrete, because it can seep through to the rebar. Some buildings with deep garages run pumps to stay dry. Others have their underground structures built in a way that resemble a bathtub or boat, sealed tight against the Biscayne Aquifer and ocean.

Collapse can be sudden if warnings ignored

But a shift in the water table caused by changing weather patterns or rising oceans can put pressure on the structures — known as slabs — that keep the water out.

“Too much pressure can break a slab,” Borges says.

Some buildings, he says, have plugs just like the ones in bathtub drains. When the water pressure gets to be too much, staff can unplug the drain and let the water in, later draining it.

“Concrete gives you a lot of warnings, but if you don’t listen, the collapse can be very sudden,” Borges says.

Newly released reports in the seaside town of Surfside near Miami Beach reveal building weaknesses that were exposed by the condo’s consultant in the fall of 2018, well before a county-required examination of the 12-story tower. Most of the needed repairs had not been made when the condo collapsed last week.

Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner says the Surfside tragedy is sparking a comprehensive review of buildings throughout his county.

“With our 39 municipal partners, county government will fully examine and act to continue the preservation of the health, safety and welfare of our county residents and visitors,” Kerner said. “Any legislative changes will come from the board as a whole or the legislature.”

Kerner would not comment on whether Palm Beach County plans to require buildings to undergo a 40-year inspection process like Miami-Dade and Broward counties already do.

“I don’t want to speak prematurely on behalf of the board,” he said Sunday.

In Boca Raton, Mayor Scott Singer is already thinking about what steps need to be taken to make sure the nearly two dozen buildings on the coast don’t come crashing down.

“I’ve already talked to our city manager and city attorney and I’m reaching out to condo associations,” Singer said. “I expect we are going to have more steps we will be taking regionwide. I’m not an engineer. But I think we are going to learn more in the weeks and months as to a revised look at what best practices are.”

At first, only Miami-Dade County required buildings to be recertified by the time they hit 40 years old. Broward County followed suit in 2005, says Mayor Steve Geller.

On Friday, Broward County sent a memo to every city advising them to send details on which buildings were due for their 40-year certifications, Geller said.

The 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo at 8777 Collins Ave. collapsed on Thursday in Surfside.

The 12-story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo at 8777 Collins Ave. collapsed on Thursday in Surfside. (Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The collapse of a three-story office building in downtown Miami in 1974 prompted Miami-Dade County to adopt the 40-year recertification requirement, said Paul Novack, former mayor of Surfside from 1992 to 2004.

“On Aug. 5, 1974, the center of that building collapsed,” he said. “Seven DEA agents and employees were killed and 19 injured. There was too much load on the roof. They were still parking cars on the roof. Sand was possibly used in the concrete. That led to salt-related corrosion of the concrete and rebar inside.”

“People are very anxious,” Cooper said. “I want to assure our residents that we are on top of this and we are working with our condo boards. We are making sure they are getting their inspections done. Our city was built in the 1970s and 1980s. So we have a lot of older buildings. It falls on our shoulders to make sure these inspections get done.”

Saltwater intrusion and what it can do to towering beachfront condos is also on everybody’s radar, Cooper said.

“As coastal communities in South Florida we are at ground zero for sea level rise,” she said. “And we need to understand these issues.”

Hollywood’s mayor says he’s already spoken to the city manager about what can be done to ensure his city’s older buildings are safe.

In addition, Levy would like to see a more rigorous review of older buildings going forward.

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“I think the scope ought to be reviewed to include X-ray inspections to enable them to inspect the concrete and steel of the structure,” Levy said. “A big weakness in the system now is the condo associations are required to conduct these 40-year inspections and every 10 years after that. Once they have the engineer do the inspection, it’s up to the condo as to whether they want to pay for the recommended work. There is some discretion the boards have on when and how to have the work done. Are we giving too much responsibility to the condo associations?”

Meantime, Levy suggests people speak up if they notice anything structurally wrong with their building.

“It’s natural for people to feel afraid when you see something horrific like this,” he said. “At the same time they should keep in mind that buildings don’t just fall down on an ordinary basis. But if they do see something in their building, cracks and water leaks, leaning of any part of their building, they should make sure their condo association is doing something about it. And they can call their city and ask the building department to conduct an inspection.”

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