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Experts Get 1st Clues on What May Have Caused Condo Collapse

Jun 26, 2021, 9:44 AM
SURFSIDE, FLORIDA - JUNE 25: Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team look for pos...
SURFSIDE, FLORIDA - JUNE 25: Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. Over one hundred people are being reported as missing as search-and-rescue effort continues with rescue crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Some of the concrete columns were cracked. The parking garage was frequently flooded with corrosive saltwater. And the roof was undergoing repairs, with crews pounding on the tower from above for weeks.

Officials don’t yet know whether any — or all — of those factors caused a Florida beachside condominium tower to suddenly collapse Thursday morning.

But experts are closely examining a 2018 repor t that identified numerous issues with the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, including “major structural damage” to a concrete structural slab below its pool deck that needed to be extensively repaired.

“Failure to replace waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” said the report from the Morabito Consultants engineering firm. The situation is a “major error” dating to the building’s original construction, according to the report, which was released with other documents late Friday by Surfside officials.

The report also uncovered “abundant cracking” and other faults in concrete columns, beams and walls in the parking garage. Some of the damage was minor, while other columns had exposed and deteriorating rebar.

It wasn’t immediately clear from the documents whether this issue or others identified in the report were ever dealt with or had any role in the building collapse. Frank Morabito, the firm’s president, did not immediately respond Saturday to an email seeking comment.

The building was in the midst of its 40-year recertification process, which requires detailed structural and electrical inspections. In an interview Friday, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he wasn’t sure if the inspection had been completed, but he said it may contain vital clues.

“It should have been a very straightforward thing,” Burkett said. “Buildings in America do not just fall down like this. There is a reason. We need to find out what that reason is.”

The 12-story tower’s collapse has left at least four people dead, 159 missing as of Friday and numerous questions about how this could have happened — and whether other similar buildings are in danger.

Details of the Champlain Towers recertification inspection will be made public once they are completed, Surfside Town Clerk Sandra McCready said in an email.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference Friday that she has seen no evidence of a sinkhole — much more common in other parts of Florida — or of something criminal, such as a bomb.

“I can tell you that at this time, they haven’t found any evidence of foul play,” she said.

Beyond that, much focus is on ocean water, which is rising in South Florida and elsewhere because of climate change. Last year, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that would require developers to complete sea-level rise studies before beginning publicly funded projects.

Like everyone else, the governor wants answers about the cause of the collapse as soon as possible.

“We need a definitive answer for how this might have happened,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “It really is a unique type of tragedy to have, in the middle of the night, half a building just collapse like that.”

Meanwhile, the land on which Champlain Towers sits has been gradually sinking, according to a study published last year by an environmental professor at Florida International University.

But the professor, Shimon Wdowinski, cautioned against blaming the collapse on the caving ground. The study used satellite data collected between 1993 to 1999 to study the sinking of land in Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami Beach.

In a video interview released by the university, Wdowinski said his study found numerous examples of sinking earth, some leading to cracks in buildings — which he called “pretty common” in Florida.

“In most cases, these buildings just move,” he said, “there’s no catastrophic collapse like in the case in Surfside, which was very unfortunate.”

Another theory is that the saltwater ubiquitous in the area, which is subject to flooding during so-called King Tide events, intrudes into concrete supports, corrodes the steel-reinforcing rebar inside and weakens the concrete.

Abi Aghayere, an engineering researcher at Drexel University, said determining if there was such deterioration could be one key to the collapse.

“Did a column fail by itself? This column has been carrying this load for 40 years, why would it fail now?” said Aghayere, adding that it is rare for rebar to be corroded without anyone noticing. “You will have concrete popping out, falling out.”

Others have cited frequent flooding in the building’s lower parking garage, including the possibility of water seeping up underneath through the porous limestone rock on which the barrier island sits that includes Surfside and Miami Beach.

Surfside officials say roof work was ongoing at the now-collapsed tower but have downplayed the possibility that work was a cause. Barry Cohen, a lawyer who escaped the crippled Champlain Towers building with his wife, said the roof work could be part of a “perfect storm” of causes that combined to bring down the structure.

“They were doing a new roof. And I think, all day long, the building was pounding and pounding and pounding. They’ve been doing it for over a month,” Cohen said.

Another issue cited by some people is construction at a nearby building that might cause vibrations that weakened Champlain Towers. Cohen said he raised concerns previously that the work was possibly causing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

The collapse is already drawing lawsuits, including one filed hours after the collapse by attorney Brad Sohn against the condo’s homeowners association seeking damages for negligence and other reasons for all of the tower’s residents.

The association, the lawsuit contends, “could have prevented the collapse of Champlain Towers South through the exercise of ordinary care, safety measures and oversight.”

An attorney for the association, Ken Direktor, did not respond Friday to an email requesting comment.

_____

Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Bernard Condon in New York contributed to this report.

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Experts Get 1st Clues on What May Have Caused Condo Collapse