Surfside official, despite report, told board that condo was ‘in good shape’

But on Saturday, the official told the Miami Herald he didn’t remember getting the report that flagged ‘major structural damage.’
An aerial view Sunday of the condo tower that collapsed in Surfside. The condo board was told in 2018 that the building was "in good shape," emails show.
An aerial view Sunday of the condo tower that collapsed in Surfside. The condo board was told in 2018 that the building was "in good shape," emails show. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]
Published June 28, 2021|Updated June 28, 2021

A month after an engineer’s report flagged “major structural damage” at Champlain Towers South, the chief building official for the town of Surfside told residents the condominium was “in very good shape,” according to minutes from a November 2018 board meeting obtained by the Miami Herald.

Ross Prieto, who left the post last year, had reviewed the engineer’s report, the minutes say. Records show condo board member Mara Chouela forwarded a copy to him two days earlier.

An email posted on the town’s website shows that Chouela sent Prieto two reports: the “structural field survey report” by engineer Frank Morabito of Morabito Consultants detailing the building’s structural deficiencies, and a mechanical and electrical engineering report by Thomas E. Henz. P.E. And it was Chouela who introduced Prieto at the meeting with five of the seven board members, along with property manager Alexandria Santamaria, condo board lawyer Marilyn Perez and interested residents who had gathered in the building’s recreation room.

But this past Saturday, Prieto told the Herald he didn’t remember getting the report.

He said he didn’t recall the email from Chouela, who had also shared cost estimates for the repair work. Prieto said he wasn’t aware that the town had received the report, which detailed “abundant cracking” in concrete columns, beams and walls.

“I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “That’s 2018.”

Asked Sunday about the November 2018 board meeting, Prieto declined to comment, citing the advice of an attorney.

That was after details of the November 2018 meeting minutes were first reported Sunday by NPR.

Related: Condo collapse live updates from the Miami Herald

Records released Sunday showed that the morning after attending the meeting, Prieto sent an email to then-town manager Guillermo Olmedillo to report that it “went very well” and that “the response was very positive from everyone in the room.” He also said he was impressed with the proactive approach of the condo association to its upcoming required 40-year recertification.

“This particular building is not due to begin their forty year until 2021 but they have decided to start the process early which I wholeheartedly endorse and wish that this trend would catch on with other properties,” Prieto wrote, according to records released Sunday by the town.

Olmedillo, the town manager from 2015 until last year, told the Herald on Sunday that he didn’t recall getting the email from Prieto.

The 12-story, 136-unit building was erected in 1981. Across Miami-Dade County, most non-single-family structures are required to undergo electrical and structural inspections by a registered architect or professional engineer once they turn 40 to confirm they are still safe. While Champlain Towers South had taken steps in 2018 to prepare for its recertification and had begun work to replace the roof, the town had yet to receive a final report.

Nothing in Morabito’s nine-page, preliminary report in 2018 indicated the building was at risk of collapse. But the report said the concrete slabs on the garage entrance and under the pool deck had deteriorated and that lack of proper drainage had caused “major structural damage.”

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It wasn’t clear whether the problem ultimately contributed to the building’s collapse, which left at least nine people dead and 152 still missing as of Sunday evening.

Six engineering experts interviewed by the Herald on Saturday said that, based on the publicly available evidence, it appeared that a structural column or concrete slab beneath the pool deck likely gave way first on Thursday, causing the deck to collapse into the garage below. That may have formed a crater beneath the bulky midsection of the tower, which then caved in on itself, the experts said.

Gregg Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale contractor and attorney who often represents clients who file lawsuits over high-rise construction failures, said town building officials have the power to condemn buildings as uninhabitable. But he said that even if Surfside was aware of the problems flagged in 2018, the town didn’t have enough information to determine “the amount of damage this building actually had.”

Finding out the extent of that damage requires “super expensive,” disruptive testing inside the building’s walls and even underground, Schlesinger said.

Still, “you can’t kick the can down the road on this stuff,” he said. “If you see a problem and you tell these people in 2018 it needs to be fixed, that doesn’t mean fix it in three years.”

‘Nothing for me to check’

Emails released by the town Sunday show Prieto dismissed concerns over potential damage to the building’s foundation from a nearby construction project just two months after he reviewed the documents that described major structural damage in the building’s lower levels. In January 2019, Chouela, the board member, again wrote to Prieto saying “a project on Collins and 87 are digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

Chouela asked if a town official could stop by to check. She attached two pictures of a backhoe working against the wall that made up the southern edge of the pool deck and parking garage — the opposite side of the structure from what later collapsed.

It took just 28 minutes for Prieto to decide to reject her request. “There is nothing for me to check,” he wrote back. “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 as they are the closest to the construction.”

The construction was occurring in the neighboring municipality of Miami Beach.

“We thought since they are very close to the city limit that the city could [do] something,” Chouela wrote. “We will revert to our attorney to make sure that our property is not being damaged.”

Chouela signed off: “Thank you for all your support.” She could not be reached for comment Sunday.

No ‘sense of urgency’

For resident Susana Alvarez, who said she attended the November 2018 meeting, Prieto’s confidence that her building “was in great shape” now haunts her.

“Lives were lost that should not have been lost,” she said.

Alvarez said Morabito had also addressed the board at a meeting not long before the one where Prieto appeared. While Morabito said millions of dollars of work was needed, Alvarez said he never conveyed a possible safety risk.

“Not once did Morabito share with us any sense of urgency, at least not the residents,” Alvarez said, who lived on the 10th floor. “He never said the building was falling apart. He said the repairs were to bring the building up to today’s standards of beauty.”

An estimate from Morabito at the time called for about $9 million in structural work. When he told residents, “of course everybody freaked,” Alvarez said. The average assessment for owners in the 136-unit building was about $100,000 apiece, she said.

In a statement Saturday, Morabito Consultants defended its work, which included efforts in 2018 to help the condo association prepare for its 40-year recertification and again more recently to create a more detailed plan for repair and restoration work.

“Among other things, our report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public,” the statement said.

Morabito’s 2018 report noted that most of the concrete deterioration in the parking garage “needs to be repaired in a timely fashion.” Referring to the pool deck, the report said, “the failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas.” And referring to the garage, the report said, “abundant cracking and spalling of varying degrees was observed in the concrete columns, beams, and walls.”

‘Nobody told us’

Alvarez was not the only resident of the 10th floor of Champlain Towers South who was disturbed by what she considered a lack of urgency to address the problem.

Rosalia Cordaro said she complained to condo officials about the “big, big, big crack” in the garage wall and the constant pool of water that appeared in the space where she parked her car in the underground garage at Champlain Towers South for more than two years.

“They never listened to me,’' she said Saturday.

Alvarez similarly said the garage was “always full of water,” sometimes even when it hadn’t rained.

Cordaro said news of the numerous structural deficiencies in the engineer’s report, primarily under the pool deck and garage, was the first time she learned that the building had such significant issues. “Nobody told us,’' she said.

A lawyer for the condo association, Donna D. Berger, said in a post on social media that the 2018 report “was posted on the association web site as were all the bids that were being obtained for the owners to see.” The board secured a line of credit to pay for the repairs, she said, and the board passed a special assessment.

Neither Berger nor Perez, the condo association lawyer who attended the 2018 meeting, responded to requests for comment Sunday.

The Herald was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach five members of the 2018 board. Two others are currently listed as unaccounted for.

Berger, in the social media post, emphasized that “this board was proactive — undertook an engineering report four years before it was required. Obtaining financing to pay for the project and was in the process of replacing the roof which was needed to then use the staging straps to address the necessary concrete repairs.”

Berger added, however, that “no work could be done during the pandemic so that caused a major delay.”

That is little solace for Cordaro, whose condo unit is gone, demolished in a massive tangle of crumbled concrete and bent rebar. She and her husband, Francisco Cordaro, would have been in their home when the building collapsed early Thursday, but instead they had made a fortunate decision to return to New York for business.

The Corderos bought their condo in 2019 for $525,000 because Miami reminded her of their native Sicily. The home inspection revealed nothing unusual, but Rosalia said she and the neighbors she became friends with would talk about “little things that bothered us.”

Her front door never closed properly. There was always water leaking into the garage. And when she and her friend, Linda March, sat by the pool, they noticed cracks in the foundation.

When they asked the building manager about it, “They would always say: ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re going to fix that’,’' Cordaro said. “And when I would complain about the [garage] cracks, nobody listened to me.”

In its statement on Saturday, Morabito Consultants said the condo association “had engaged the firm again in June 2020 to prepare a ’40-year Building Repair and Restoration’ plan with detailed specifications for completing the necessary repairs and restoration work. At the time of the building collapse, roof repairs were underway, but concrete restoration had not yet begun.”

Expensive repairs

When 40-year reviews take place, the cost to residents can be steep. Unit owners at Champlain Towers South were expected to be assessed based on the square footage of their property.

The Cordaros said they received a bill for $95,000 to pay for the building repairs and renovation. They said they sent the check just two weeks ago.

Cordaro said she was told the work had to do with the balcony and does not recall any discussion of foundation issues or plans to repair the issues with the garage.

Bradford Sohn, lawyer for the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against the condo association Friday, said that “it has been impressed upon me by a number of people who are residents and past residents” that there was no sense of urgency from the condominium officials about the repairs.

Cordaro said she was increasingly worried about leaving her car in the parking garage under the building.

“I was scared every time,’' she told the Herald. “There was always water in my spot, water on the floor, water coming up from the wall, and a big, big, big crack. And nobody would say nothing.”

The 2018 report said that the parking garage under the pool deck and planter slabs “revealed signs of distress/fatigue...Several sizable [cracks in the concrete] were noted in both the topside of the entrance drive ramp and underside of the pool/entrance drive/planter slabs, which included instances with exposed, deteriorating rebar.”

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the report said.

The Corderos received email updates from the condo board but Rosaria did not recall anything related to any discussion of foundation issues or plans to repair the issues with the garage.

Cordaro filled their condo with the mementos she had growing up as a young girl. She sobbed as she recalled the missing families they had become close to “and the babies,’' she said.

“It’s been two nights and I don’t sleep,’' she said Saturday. “I wake up wanting to open the door from my little house, to escape.”

- Aaron Lebowitz, Mary Ellen Klas and Sarah Blaskey