Days before condo fell, urgent requests faced bureaucratic replies

Champlain Towers South residents pushed to start repairs but Surfside officials were slow to respond, newly released emails show

Miami /
Jul.July 07, 2021 11:49 AM
The partially collapsed condo building prior to full demolition (Getty)

Champlain Towers South, before it was demolished late Sunday. The condo association had requested approvals from Surfside officials for repair work in the days leading up to the partial collapse. (Getty)

In the days leading up to the Champlain Towers South collapse, the condo association and its engineer sent a series of increasingly urgent emails to Surfside town officials. The messages sought approvals for a variety of small requests that would have allowed for extensive repair work on the building to finally begin.

Starting on May 12 and ending June 21 — three days before the 12-story complex fell — the advisories repeated that the condo was eager to bid out and start the repairs, newly released emails show. But town officials were slow to respond and repeatedly sought clarification about minor points, which slowed the process for approval, according to the records. Surfside released them over the July 4 weekend.

In one exchange, Surfside officials took just over a month to answer a May 20 email from the Champlain Towers South engineer advising on the project. It was regarding a request for approvals of an off-site construction staging area and added parking. The engineer also sent a request for a new gas line days after the first email. The engineer told Surfside the association could not proceed with its 40-year recertification repairs without a response.

When the town’s reply to the initial email finally came, on June 23, a Surfside building official requested further information about a site plan and other details at the complex, the emails show.

Just over 13 hours later, most of Champlain Towers South at 8777 Collins Avenue tumbled. As of Wednesday, 46 people were confirmed dead and more than 100 others were still missing.

The emails between condo officials and the town provide a window into how Surfside’s bureaucratic process was unable to adjust and respond to an approaching threat, one that ultimately ended in disaster.

Previously released emails have shown that former Surfside Building official Rosendo Prieto assured Champlain Towers South residents at a Nov. 15, 2018, meeting that their building was “in very good shape.” Two days earlier, Prieto had received an email with an inspection report from the condo association’s engineer, Frank Morabito, explaining that failed waterproofing was causing “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and entrance drive.

Records have also revealed how Surfside code compliance investigated less urgent issues in the leadup to the collapse, which included complaints about overgrown hedges, lighting that could disturb turtles at a nearby beach and possible short-term rental violations.

Repair requests

Champlain Towers South manager Scott Stewart sent the town the first email with the condo association’s work plans on May 12, according to the documents released Sunday. Town officials then met on a Zoom call with Stewart and the association.

On May 20, Morabito emailed asking for the additional parking and staging area. Champlain Towers South wants to “go out to bid for our 40-year recertification work ASAP and need the Town of Surfside input on this request so everyone has a clear understanding on how this project will be accomplished,” Morabito wrote. Four days later, he sought for a new gas line and meter on the property.

On June 10, Surfside still hadn’t responded to the request, but the town’s top building official, James McGuinness. did reply to an inquiry from a group calling itself East of Collins. The organization — a management and concierge service for residents and businesses in the area — asked to clarify a few items regarding the Champlain Towers South construction work. It does not appear to be affiliated with the condo association.

On June 21, Stewart sent the town a followup email to Morabito’s message from nearly a month before, which had not been answered. “As we are out to bid on our project and need to get to answers to these questions,” Stewart wrote. “This is holding us up and costs are going up and our 40 year is coming up fast.”

Another email Stewart sent the town the same day notified officials the condo was ready to submit plans to get permits for a “dry run” regarding its plan for $11 million of work at the complex. That included addressing damaged concrete, masonry and stucco; along with repairing and replacing pool finishes and waterproofing, and fixing balconies and the plaza area.

Town Manager Andrew Hyatt answered, saying that he met with McGuinness, who would be the point person. Surfside Planning Director Walter Keller was also involved in those discussions, according to the emails. Two days later, McGuinness sent Stewart another email, asking for more information.

Hyatt defended the town’s handling of the condo’s repeated requests, saying the association gave no indication that “this submission required emergency action,” he said in a statement.

Documents the condo association sent were “not final” plans, he maintained, and no permits were ever submitted. He added the condo association sought to address issues “outside the scope” of the 40-year recertification work, appearing to imply those issues further complicated the review.

“The scope of work for repairs was not received until June 21, 2021, and not in the form of a building application,” Hyatt said in his statement. “To date, no permit application for these specific repairs has been received by the town.”

Records do show that McGuinness performed a rooftop inspection on May 25, following a resident’s complaint about fumes from a tar kettle used in the roofing work. The association had started on those repairs because of the coming hurricane season.

Condo association spokesperson Max Marcucci said the emails “speak for themselves,” and would not comment.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology will probe the Champlain Towers South collapse and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she will pursue a grand jury investigation into the cause.





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