Grand jury: After Surfside collapse, require frequent inspections, stricter association rules

·6 min read
Emily Michot/emichot@MiamiHerald.com

In the wake of the deadly Surfside condo collapse, Miami-Dade County should institute more frequent building recertification inspections, and condo associations should be required to annually certify routine maintenance and building repairs, a grand jury recommended on Wednesday.

Those were among the many recommendations issued Wednesday by a grand jury tasked with exploring condo safety following the June collapse of Champlain Towers South that killed 98 people in one of the nation’s deadliest building failures.

The report does not address the cause of the deadly collapse — that probe is still being handled by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology — but rather focuses on overall high-rise safety, and recommendations to avoid future disasters.

Among its recommendations:

Miami-Dade officials should start a certification process that “starts much earlier” than the window now required to be done at 40 years after the completion of a building. The grand jury recommended a time table of between 10 and 15 years after the completion of construction, with updated reports every 10 years afterward.

The county created its 40-year recertification policy after the 1974 collapse of a 30-year-old office building in downtown Miami that was leased by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Seven people died in a building that failed because of concrete deterioration.

“Although these two tragedies occurred almost fifty-years apart, we believe the message being delivered is clear,” the report said. “If we do not build safely, if we do not immediately institute improvements to the policies and procedures surrounding the existing 40-year recertification process ... we predict that the Champlain Tower South Condominium building will not be the last partial building collapse in our community.”

The recommendation is not new. In the wake of the tragedy, other government leaders and experts — such as a condo law task force convened by the Florida Bar, and state engineering associations — have also suggested shortening the window for recertification.

Another reason it’s important to recertify more often: The longer buildings fall into disrepair, the more expensive making the fixes becomes. The grand jury noted that in the case of Champlain Towers, a condo association-commissioned inspection in 2018 pointed out “major structural damage” that needed repairs. But condo owners, the report noted, balked at what became a $14 million price tag.

“It appears that the enormous costs of making those repairs had led owners and officers to ‘kick the can down the road,’ ” the report said. “This unfortunate scenario has replicated itself in condominiums all over South Florida.”

The report: “There was sufficient information, provided early enough to put everyone on notice of a major problem. However, sadly, none of the participants acted quickly enough to tragedy.”

County and local building officials should require building owners to paint and/or waterproof the exterior of buildings at least every 10 years. “Waterproofing roofs and exterior building surfaces are relatively inexpensive measures that could go a long way to providing protection from water intrusion,” the report said, adding: “Experts opine that painting every 7 years should afford an appropriate level of protecting and extend the life expectancy of building structures.”

Condo associations should be required to file a document every year “certifying that regular and routine maintenance of all components impacting the structural integrity of the building” has been done within the past 12 months.

“Condo and other building owners should not kick maintenance repairs down the road, waiting for the first inspections when the building reaches 40-years-old,” the report said. “Condo owners should feel secure in the knowledge that maintenance repairs will not be deferred by their condo association.”

The grand jury issued a host of other recommendations designed to improve how condo associations deal with aging buildings, including that they beef up insurance coverage and receive better education about building repairs. The report also recommends a law requiring inspections commissioned by condo associations to be sent to local building officials within seven business days.

The grand jury issued its report six months after Champlain Towers South collapsed suddenly in the early morning hours of June 24, killing 98 people in one of the nation’s deadliest building failures. The collapse led to an exhaustive search-and-rescue effort that lasted weeks, the initiation of complex federal and state investigations and scores of civil lawsuits.

The tragedy also escalated safety concerns regarding the structural integrity of condo building in Miami-Dade County, especially along the coast. Across South Florida, governments scrambled to reinspect older multi-story buildings, particularly ones built on the coast.

In the wake of the tragedy, local, county and state leaders began discussing improvements to building-safety regulations. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle urged the Miami-Dade grand jury to look at “recommendations to prevent such a disaster from occurring again.”

In Miami-Dade, the grand jury generally has two functions: to issue indictments for first-degree murder cases, and to explore broader issues of public health and safety. Over the years, Miami-Dade grand juries have issued reports on the financial health of Miami’s public hospital system, the environmental state of Biscayne Bay and the treatment of mentally ill people in county jails, among many other topics.

The grand jury, which started its six-month term in May, also has the power to issue criminal indictments. This probe, however, did not focus on specifically assigning blame for Champlain Towers. After the federal probe is concluded, the State Attorney’s Office will be tasked with deciding whether criminal charges are warranted, or whether to present the evidence to a future grand jury.

Engineering experts have told the Herald that Champlain South was ailing from poor design, flawed construction and decades of patchwork repairs.

Using witness statements, photos of damage and computer models, the Herald this month reconstructed the collapse, which likely began when corroded steel reinforcement fractured in the first-floor slab, at or near the southern edge of the pool deck. The Herald also found that the collapse might not have been so deadly if not for an apparent malfunction in the alarm system.

The long-term damage was apparent to Miami-Dade grand jurors, who visited the site in Surfside where the building once stood, and reviewed photos and videos of the fatally damaged building before it fell. “The exposed rebar in some of these areas clearly showed that salt water had penetrated the concrete and over time, the salt water rusted the rebar, causing the concrete to crack,” the report said. “Once the rebar was exposed, the corrosion proceeded at a much more rapid rate, resulting in more spalling and greater weakening of the concrete forming the pillars, slabs or columns.”

Another recommendation: that building officials institute guidelines on how to weather-proof buildings and inspect for spalling damage for buildings more than three stories high. The grand jury also recommended governments increase staffing and budgets for building officials, to help identify at-risk buildings faster, and state requirements beefing up qualifications for engineers who inspect buildings.

The grand jury’s report is not binding, but could become a useful tool as lawmakers at every level, including at the county and in Surfside, consider tightening building regulations and how condo associations deal with repairs.

“I think these are common sense but desperately needed reforms that clearly need to go into place,” said Fernández Rundle, whose office is sending the report to building officials in cities across Miami-Dade.

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