As rescue efforts continue and further investigation is made into the Surfside building collapse, the death toll rises to 32 and 113 remain unaccounted for.
The remaining structure for the Champlain Towers South building was demolished on Sunday night. Living residents were not permitted to enter the premises to retrieve their property in advance, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis remarked, “Obviously it wasn’t worth the risk, we cannot lose any more people.” The sister building, Champlain Towers North, was also evacuated out of an abundance of caution, as well as other nearby complexes with safety concerns like Crestview Towers.
Hurricane Elsa threatened further damage and destruction, which was ameliorated by the demolition. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said, “The looming threat of that building – the dangerous situation where debris could fall down – is now eliminated.” Rescue efforts can now continue in full force, while search and rescue teams strive to retrieve all survivors and remains from the site. However, now 11 days after the initial collapse, anguished families are losing hope that they will ever be reunited with their loved ones.
Victims range from ages 4 to 92. Amongst the victims are at least four children, including the 7-year old daughter of a Miami firefighter, Stella Cattarossi. 113 residents still remain unaccounted for, with at least 70 of those missing confirmed to be in the building at the time of the collapse.
Investigation into the cause of the collapse reveals a complicated history of building safety failures and major structural damage, which also reflects onto the larger, flawed system of building safety recertification.
Regulation dictates that nearly every building in the Miami Dade County area must be examined and recertified after 40 years and every 10 years thereafter the first recertification. The Champlain Towers board had begun this process in 2018 when they brought in engineer Frank Morabito to review the tower. Morabito reported that failed waterproofing caused major structural damage, adding that “failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”
Morabito detailed the major design flaws in original construction, specifically focusing on the waterproofing below the pool deck and around the garage – two of the primary locations of damage in the initial collapse. “Abundant cracking and spalling of varying degrees was observed in the concrete columns, beams, and walls,” he wrote, attaching images of “new cracks radiating from the originally repaired cracks,” as a result of failed attempts to patch the concrete quickly. He warned the board that repairs would be extremely expensive and cause “a major disturbance to residents.”
Morabito’s report also identified additional problem areas and complaints from residents. The New York Times reported that “residents were complaining of water coming through their windows and balcony doors, and the concrete on many balconies also was deteriorating.”
The board forwarded this report to city officials, but Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said officials there knew nothing of this report, thus confirming suspicions that building regulation enforcement is too lax or enforced unevenly across the board. In response, Mayor Cava announced a 30-day audit of all buildings over 40 years old.
Resident Jay Miller recalled that almost everyone in the building knew of the 2018 report, but the concern wasn’t so much the structural damage as the cost of repairs. The exorbitant price of the repairs, estimated around $9 million in 2019, caused infighting and tension amongst the Champlain Towers board members, and ultimately led the majority of the board to resign by fall of 2019.
Efforts to comply with recertification and address building damage continued in 2020 when residents were informed about upcoming repairs. They were told about design flaws in water drainage and structural damage, but not given an accurate understanding of the extensiveness of the damage or warned that collapse was a potential risk. Different language has been used over the years by a variety of people to describe the damage, possibly contributing to different understandings of the severity of deterioration or urgency of repairs.
Morabito’s services were employed again when Morabito Consultants was brought on board in June 2020 to plan and prepare for extensive repairs, but the coronavirus pandemic slowed progress in rectifying building damage. Water issues in the roof were also found at this time, though it is unknown how or if the roof’s condition contributed to the collapse.
A report by researchers at Florida International University detailing where land in Miami was sinking only served to complicate matters more as it indicated that the land on which the Champlain Towers were built is a hot spot for sinkage. Researcher Shimon Wdowinski estimates the building has sunk into the ground at least 2 inches and has been sinking for over two decades.
A letter by board president Jean Wodnicki from April 9, 2021 revealed that the board did not have enough money to pay the now $15.5 million tab of repairs. However, they are likely now facing even more costs in lawsuits to come.
Morabito Consultants has since released a statement clarifying their involvement with the history of building damages at Champlain Towers: “Our firm exclusively provides engineering consulting services. We do not provide construction-related services, such as building repair and restoration contracting. We are deeply troubled by this building collapse and are working closely with the investigating authorities to understand why the structure failed. As we do so, we also continue to pray for all those impacted by this tragic event.”
Search and rescue efforts will continue as we learn more about the circumstances behind the collapse. City of Miami Fire Rescue Capt. Ignatius Carroll says, “We continue to remain focused on our primary mission, and that is to leave no stone unturned and to find as many people as we can and to help bring either some answers to family and loved ones or to bring some closure to them.”
Written by Sydney Mayer