PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — More than a week after a deadly Surfside, Florida, building collapse, there are still plenty of questions about what led to the tragedy and whether the same thing could conceivably happen in the Tampa Bay region.
The I-Team interviewed a world-renowned engineer, a building inspector and an attorney who represents clients in building defect cases about what they think contributed to the building’s collapse.
"It will take months and months"
Just yards from the shore of Surfside Beach, somber rescue workers comb through tons of debris, recovering the bodies of people who once called Champlain Towers home.
Matthys Levy, who served as a structural design engineer for hundreds of building and bridge projects, was asked to assess the collapse of the World Trade Center following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.
He says investigators on the ground in Surfside are undertaking a similar process.
“They have to remove concrete essentially layer by layer in order not to destroy the evidence that could be there,” Levy said. “It will take months and months and months.”
Levy, who also wrote the book “Why Buildings Fall Down” says a 2018 inspection report prepared for Champlain Towers reveals big clues about what may have contributed to the collapse, including water intrusion, cracking and spalling.
Spalling is the process in which concrete peels, breaks and chips away, exposing steel supports encased within columns.
“You get kind of an inkling of what should have been done because there were indications then that the building had some problems. The question is why was there nothing done at that time?” Levy said.
“The same things are going on in the whole state of Florida”
Retired building inspector Glenn Hall says it’s not unusual to see significant damage to condominiums in Florida, especially in units built in coastal areas.
“I’ve worked all over the state of Florida and the same things are going on in the whole state of Florida,” Hall said. “You’ve got sea surges, you’ve got saltwater intrusion. You’ve got 40 years of that stuff beating on that building, getting into those windows.”
Hall says that damages stucco, concrete and steel.
“Concrete does two things. It gets hard and it cracks. So when it cracks, water gets into the cracks and it gets to the rebar and starts rusting the steel,” Hall said.
He says something as minor as water leaking into the walls and from balconies on upper floors can contribute to problems within a building’s support structure, especially if leaks occur over extended periods of time.
20,030 Pinellas County high-rise, or mid-rise condo units, were built in 1981 or before
There are more than 100,000 condominium units in the Tampa Bay Region, according to property records in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota Counties.
Mid-rise buildings, which stand between4 and 11 stories and high-rise buildings, which are 12 stories or more, as most prominent along the Gulf Coast and Tampa Bay, where property prices are the highest and where weather conditions are often the worst.
Because these are often considered the best locations, they also include some of the Tampa Bay area’s tallest buildings.
In Pinellas County, which has the largest coastline, the property appraiser says there are 283 mid-rise or high-rise condo complexes built in 1981 or earlier. Those contain 22,030 units.
But experts say age alone doesn’t determine which ones are most at-risk for serious problems.
Architect Johnny Dagher recently bought a condo in a 12-story-348 unit high-rise building in Clearwater Beach which was constructed in 1962.
“It’s a lot of lives here. You want a board that’s really active in making sure everything has been taken care of,” Dagher said.
He says the homeowner’s association board sent owners an email last week assuring them there were no major structural concerns there.
“A well-maintained building will show no problems at all after 40, 50, 60 years. But a badly maintained building could show problems after 10 or 20 years,” said Levy.
Issues at Champlain Towers started 20 years ago
Homeowners claim in court documents that the Champlain Towers board failed to adequately maintain its building.
One lawsuit filed days after the collapse alleges studies from the late 1990s show the tower was “progressively sinking into the ground."
The owner of a ground-level unit in Champlain Tower sued the homeowners’ association twice.
“They were having stucco breaking off. Concrete exposed. Steel seemingly corroded,” attorney Daniel Wagner said.
He represented the owner in a 2015 case, which was eventually settled.
That same homeowner sued the HOA in 2001 for similar incidents of water intrusion, which she claimed caused more than $15,000 in damage in each suit.
The same woman recently contacted Wagner to complain of additional damage.
“Whatever work they did was not appropriate or was negligently done,” Wagner said.
Luckily, her family was not in the building when it collapsed.
Proposed changes in Florida’s inspection process
“The unit owners, they put their faith and their trust in their condo boards. Not only to keep the lights on, but more importantly, to keep them safe,” Wagner said.
The Champlain Towers board paid thousands to the engineering firm that conducted the study and identified the problems in 2018, but did not yet spend the millions of dollars needed to make the repairs.
Under state existing state law, HOA boards can’t be forced to make repairs unless conditions pose an immediate threat to public safety.
“Looking at them and repairing them are two different things. You can look at them all you want and tell them 'OK, this is what you need.' Whether they fix it or not is up to them,” Hall said.
“I would like to see some change to the codes. Similar to what happened after Hurricane Andrew where they refined the whole code to make sure those types of horrible tragedies don’t happen again,” Wagner said.
Experts say condo owners should become involved with their associations, attend board meetings and insist that maintenance issues are quickly addressed.
“Someone else is not responsible. It’s still your own house in a way, only it’s your own house up in the air. And you have to make certain that someone’s taking care of it,” Levy said.
As a result of the biggest mass casualty event of its kind in Florida, a new law is proposed for the next legislative session, requiring regular inspections of condominiums, but it’s unclear how boards could be forced to perform maintenance.
If you know of ongoing maintenance issues at a mid-rise or high-rise in Tampa Bay that concern you or if you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org