The partial collapse of a residential high rise building in Surfside, Florida, has led to questions about the factors leading to the incident and how much warning stakeholders may have had.
As of July 2, at least 20 people are dead and 128 people are unaccounted for in the collapse of 55 units of Champlain Towers South, which crashed to the ground in the middle of the night on Thursday, June 24. Rescue and recovery efforts are ongoing amid the wreckage.
The cause of the collapse is still unknown, but a letter sent several months before the tragedy warned that damage to the building was accelerating following a 2018 report that cited “major structural damage to the concrete structural slab” below the condo’s pool deck and entrance drive caused by failing waterproofing.
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What Led to the Collapse?
The building was just 40 years old and was due to undergo its 40-year recertification process. The collapse of such a young building is unthinkable, said Prof. Julio Ramirez, the Karl H. Kettelhut Professor of Civil Engineering at Purdue University. Ramirez has more than 30 years of experience in earthquake and structural engineering design for buildings and bridges and has led or participated in 15 post-hazard data collection missions after major earthquakes.
“This is not something that in the United States we see regularly or even frequently,” Ramirez said. “It’s unbelievable that it happened in the United States, where there is a certain standard of care in design and construction. The question is really the maintenance—it’s what happened after [the construction].”
The collapse is likely due to a number of intersecting factors, Ramirez said. Forensic engineers will likely examine the structure in the coming days to try to determine the contributing causes, which could include:
- Shifts or settling in the ground under the building
- Exposure to nearby salt water
- Deferred maintenance
“You saw this for the last time when the World Trade Center collapsed,” explained Ramirez. “The government is focused on finding out the reasons in a way that will really inform the nation. This is the nation wanting to know what happened.”
What Are the Legal Implications?
Lawyers representing Manuel Drezner, who lived in unit 1009 of Champlain Towers South and is now suing the building’s condominium association, have begun subpoenaing documents from Morabito Consultants, an engineering firm hired to complete repairs on the condo building after conducting the 2018 survey, according to CNN.
These documents, which are not yet publicly available, may shed light on the building’s integrity and other matters, CNN reported.
There will likely be more court filings in the coming days and weeks related to the collapse. People who have been injured, lost a loved one or lost personal property in the collapse are likely to pursue legal action. The condominium board that oversaw operations at Champlain Towers South and any management services they contracted will both face “potentially dramatic liability,” according to attorney Judah Lifschitz, principal and co-president of Shapiro, Lifschitz & Schram in Washington, D.C. Other potential defendants include the engineering company that conducted the 2018 survey and any contractors who did work on the building and didn’t sound the alarm about any damage they witnessed.
“The physical and personal tragedy and calamity that’s occurred here is enormous,” Lifschitz said. “When we get past this very painful process and it’s appropriate to start talking about liability, what we can figure out pretty quickly is that between the wrongful death actions and the property damage claims, etc., the dollars of loss and the dollars of potential damage will be huge. People who have been injured will be looking for as many possible defendants and insurance companies to be liable, at the end of the day. What’s going to happen, in my opinion and experience, is that anybody who’s quote-unquote touched that building is susceptible and likely to be sued.”
Similarly situated buildings in beachfront communities should immediately conduct inspections to make sure they don’t have similar damage, Lifschitz recommended.
“Those who have already had serious inspections and are delaying repairing the building need to get moving, start repairing the building and see if there are intermediate steps they need to do to make sure the building is safe,” he said.
“Buildings don’t just fall down. Buildings speak to the public, if one knows the language and one recognizes what they see,” Lifschitz added.
What Should Building Owners Know?
Some takeaways for building owners and managers won’t emerge until more is known about the causes of the collapse. However, given the reports of damage to the structure in the years before the collapse, one lesson is clear: Don’t ignore red flags. Some signs of structural damage could include cracking in the masonry or concrete or doors and windows that are hard to open.
If you notice any signs that could potentially indicate structural damage, don’t delay calling in a professional to evaluate the safety of the building.
“Just use common sense,” Ramirez urged. “When people moved in, the building was in a certain condition. Has that condition changed? Just be alert, and when something is not right, report it.”