Town deemed collapsed condo building in ‘good shape’, despite 2018 warning

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Crews work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people are still unaccounted for after Thursday’s fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Despite an engineer’s warning of major structural problems, a town building official told board members their Florida high-rise condominium was in “very good shape” almost three years before it collapsed, according to minutes of that meeting released Monday.

The Surfside official, Rosendo “Ross” Prieto was quoted as making those comments at a meeting of the Champlain Towers South board on Nov. 15, 2018. That was just over a month after engineering firm Morabito Consultants issued a report describing key flaws in the structure.

The discussion with Prieto came as Champlain Towers was beginning to explore what work was needed under city and county ordinances for the building to meet a 40-year recertification that was to arrive in 2021.

The board meeting minutes say that Prieto told them in 2018 the Morabito engineering report had collected the necessary information and “it appears the building is in very good shape.”

A day later, Prieto told the then-town manager of Surfside he thought the meeting was a success and credited Champlain Towers with getting a good early start on the recertification process.

“The response was very positive from everyone in the room,” Prieto wrote in the email, also released by town officials. “All the main concerns over their forty-year recertification process were addressed.”

Yet there is no evidence any of the critical concrete structure work ever started, the documents show. Owners of the 136 units had been told earlier this year they would have to pay their share of a $15 million assessment — $9.1 million of which was major work — by July 1. That assessment ranged from about $80,000 for a one-bedroom unit to more than $330,000 for a penthouse.

Prieto no longer works at Surfside and efforts to locate him Monday for comment were not immediately successful. Prieto previously told the Miami Herald he didn’t remember getting the Morabito report and declined to comment on the November 2018 board meeting.

The minutes were forwarded to Surfside officials on Sunday by an attorney for the board, according to the town.

The Morabito report focused attention on the pool deck, which was found to have waterproofing underneath that had failed and had been laid flat instead of sloping to drain off water. This threatened not only the concrete slab under the pool but also other structural areas.

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” said the report, which also cited “abundant cracking” in concrete columns and beams.

While numerous theories have emerged, no definitive cause has been identified in Thursday’s collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South building that left at least 10 people confirmed dead and 151 missing.

One problem that surfaced back in 2019 involved work at another building adjacent to Champlain Towers South.

“We are concerned that the construction next to (Champlain) is too close,” board member Mara Chouela wrote in an email to Prieto in January 2019. The construction work, she added, is “digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

Prieto responded that Surfside didn’t have an official role in that issue. “There is nothing for me to check. The best course of action is to have someone monitor the fence, pool and adjacent areas for damage or hire a consultant to monitor these areas,” he wrote.

Champlain Towers South resident Steven Rosenthal, who lived on the seventh floor and escaped the collapse, said in a negligence lawsuit filed Sunday by his attorney Robert McKee that there were ample signs of danger.

The building board, the lawsuit says, had warnings and other sources of information years ago indicating “the risk or potential indicators of severe building damage or collapse.”

Rosenthal, the lawsuit adds, “lost his home. He lost his personal property obtained over the years. He has been forced into a life with no home or possessions.”

At least two other lawsuits have been filed in the tower’s collapse, including one filed Monday by resident Raysa Rodriguez, who also argued that problems had been brought to the attention of the condo association over the years.

Rodriguez “herself previously experienced issues with the deteriorating building, including on one occasion when a chunk of concrete fell out of the garage ceiling and landed behind her parked car,” the lawsuit states. Her lawsuit said that she sent the association a photo showing a crack in the concrete above her parking space in the garage.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said during a news conference Monday that the minutes of the building board meeting were of some concern but did not elaborate. He said the town continues to gather documentation on the history of Champlain Towers South and inspections of its structural integrity, and is posting them online as they become available.

“We will be 100% transparent,” Burkett said.

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