Champlain Towers Condominium Collapse A Tragedy That May Have Been Avoidable

The collapse of the Champlain Towers Condominium is a terrible tragedy, likely resulting in the loss of 150 or more lives. What we do know is that the building was going though a 40-year recertification process  that is required of South Florida buildings. Champlain Towers was built in 1981, and featured 130 units in 12 stories.

During a 40-year recertification process, a structural and electrical inspection is required for all 40-year-old buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties (and every 10 years thereafter). Buildings must be recertified by a registered Florida Engineer or Architect for safety. The purpose of the inspection is to minimize structural and electrical failures and be better prepared for hurricane-force winds. The inspection also helps owners plan for future repairs and renovations. 

“Condominium Associations are responsible to maintain the structural integrity of the building, not the residents. This is why condo associations are supposed to  conduct regular maintenance and periodic inspections as required by the building code, and additional inspections where they know or should know that problems can arise,” said Jeffrey Sonn, Esq. of Sonn Law, in Aventura, Florida. “It is not a big secret that in South Florida, and especially on the islands, like Miami Beach, that proximity to salt water causes rebar to rust, and I have seen many condo buildings, for example, replace their balconies because the structural integrity of the rebar rusted,” added Sonn. “So periodic structural inspections, including destructive testing, is, in my opinion, a necessity in South Florida,” said Sonn.

A class action has been filed against the condominium association, alleging the condominium association was negligent in maintaining the building. 

One local engineer said that if the building were constructed with a “post-tension slab,” or a concrete slab that has cables running through it, and one of those cables came loose, that could have led to its destruction. Also, while salt can have a severe impact on coastal buildings, the engineer was not sure how long it would take for salt to erode a building’s materials to the point of collapse. But salt in Miami’s coastal air could potentially accelerate the erosion of steel in the building. Evidence or erosion can appear as rust stains or exposed rebar. “It’s like a cancer,” the engineer said “by the time you see it, it could be too late.” This is why engineering inspections are so important, which should happen every five or 10 years. An inspection, for example, could include removing drywall or other material to expose and inspect steel beams to ensure that the steel is not eroding. 

Another interesting story has emerged that Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at the Department of Earth and Environment at the Florida International University, found that the condo building had been sinking since the 1990s. His study examined areas of Miami from 1992 to 1999 using Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar technology to compile datasets of the levels of sinking in different parts of the city. He found that Champlain Towers had sank by around 2 millimetres a year between 1993 and 1999. Wdowinski said in a news report with USA Today that the sinking was  “pretty small,” but explained that “when you think about the accumulation over time then it can be a few inches over decades and that was our concern.”

“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims, and we hope the first responders are able to find more residents alive as they uncover the rubble,” said Sonn. “We also hope to discover the root cause of the collapse, so we can do everything we can as a community to make sure this never happens again,” added Sonn.

For more information, contact Jeffrey Sonn, Esq,. at 305-912-3000, jsonn@sonnlaw.com.