Emails, condo meeting minutes show Surfside official turned a blind eye to structural issues

Rosendo Prieto offered assurances at November 2018 meeting with residents

An ex-Surfside building official who was emailed a report about the Champlain Towers’ structural damage told residents the building was in good condition in 2018 (Getty)
An ex-Surfside building official who was emailed a report about the Champlain Towers’ structural damage told residents the building was in good condition in 2018 (Getty)

UPDATED, June 28, 6:47 p.m.: Residents of the collapsed Surfside condominium were told in 2018 that their building was in good condition.

The town’s main building official at that time offered them the assurance even though he had received a report raising red flags about the tower’s integrity.

Months later, in 2019, a Champlain Towers South board member expressed concern to that official about the potential effects on the structural integrity of the building, as digging was underway for the new Eighty Seven Park condo tower next door.

Rosendo “Ross” Prieto, who no longer works for the town, told Champlain Towers South residents their oceanfront tower was “in very good shape” during a Nov. 15, 2018, meeting, according to NPR, which first reported Prieto’s comments after obtaining the association’s minutes from the meeting.

Two days prior to the meeting, a condo association board member sent Prieto the October 2018 inspection report by engineer Frank Morabito that failed waterproofing was causing “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and entrance drive, according to records released by the town of Surfside. The inspection was completed as part of the 40-year recertification process, a requirement for residential buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

An excerpt from Frank Morabito's report in which he details structural issues at the building

An excerpt from Frank Morabito’s report detailing structural issues at the building

NPR learned of the condo association meeting from a resident who was in attendance and survived the deadly collapse.

The northeast portion of the 12-story building at 8777 Collins Avenue crumbled in the middle of the night last week, caving into the underground garage and trapping more than 150 people. Eleven people have been confirmed dead, though officials expect to report more fatalities as the search for the missing continues.

Residents and board members of Champlain South had also voiced their concerns over construction of the oceanfront Eighty Seven Park, according to emails released by the town of Surfside. Prieto even replied to condo board members that there was nothing for the town to do. Eighty Seven Park is located in the city of Miami Beach, while Champlain is in Surfside, a different jurisdiction.

Attempts to reach Prieto for comment were unsuccessful. He also declined to comment to the Miami Herald on Sunday, a day after he had told the publication that he did not remember getting the condo board member’s email and was not aware the town had received the report.

The day after meeting with Champlain Towers residents in 2018, Prieto said it “went very well” in an email to former Town Manager Guillermo Olmedillo.

Former Surfside building official Rosendo “Ross” Prieto's email to a former town manager following Prieto's meeting with Champlain Towers South residents on November 15, 2018.

Former Surfside building official Rosendo “Ross” Prieto’s email to a former town manager following Prieto’s meeting with Champlain Towers South residents on November 15, 2018.

Prieto said all of the residents’ main concerns over the 40-year recertification process were addressed and he praised the building for beginning the review early.

“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 in that message.

Complaints about neighboring construction

Residents raised concerns regarding the effects of construction adjacent to Champlain Towers South, emails between the town, condo board and residents, and Eighty Seven Park developer Terra show.

In January 2019, Mara Chouela, then secretary of the board, wrote to Prieto with concerns that next-door construction was “too close” and workers were “digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

She asked the town to send an official to check the site. Prieto replied that “there is nothing for me to check.”

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

By signing up, you agree to TheRealDeal Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy.

He suggested Champlain South hire someone to monitor the areas closest to the construction.

Michael Piazza, Terra’s senior vice president of design and construction, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, 8701 Collins Development LLC, the Terra-led development entity behind Eighty Seven Park, declined to comment.

Read more

Debris was also an issue for Champlain Towers South.

In February 2019, Annette Goldstein, then president of the board, wrote to the town that residents were “fed up that we are living like this,” referring to Styrofoam debris on the pool deck that had been an issue for at least three months. Another email from a property manager at Champlain Towers South, Alexandria Santamaria, said that the pool deck, driveway and front entrance that was “full of sand” had been cleaned up.

Emails allege that hours after the debris was removed, more would fall or be blown over to the neighboring Champlain South. The property manager implied that Terra would pay the $5,000 fine for the debris and continue to allow workers to let debris end up on the Champlain South property, adding that “money doesn’t seem to be an issue” for the high-end developer.

Structural issues flagged in 2018

Morabito, of Morabito Consultants, wrote in his October 2018 report the damage was caused by “failed” waterproofing below the deck and entrance driveway, as the waterproofing was beyond its useful life.

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

The main issue was that the reinforced concrete slab was not sloped so water can drain, which Morabito wrote was a “major error” in the original building plans prepared by William M. Friedman & Associates Architects and Breiterman Jurado & Associates, Consulting Engineers.

Morabito’s report also found “abundant cracking and spalling of varying degrees” to the garage concrete columns, beams and walls, adding that previous repairs were “failing.” He wrote that he is “convinced” epoxy injections done in the past to repair the underside of the pool deck and entrance were “ineffective” in fixing cracks and spalling.

Morabito in an emailed statement said that its report “detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public.” The engineering consultant said it was retained a second time in June 2020 by the association to provide a plan with the specific needed repairs and restoration. It is unknown whether the issues in Morabito’s report were addressed, although records show no notices of commencement were filed for those repairs. The building began construction on a new roof in April.

The cause of the tower’s collapse remains unknown and it is unclear whether the issues Morabito outlined in his report or the nearby construction had any role.

Morabito said in its statement that it is “saddened” and “troubled” by the collapse and is working with investigators to determine the cause.

Surfside hired structural engineering firm KCE Structural Engineers, led by Allyn Kilsheimer, as a consultant on the collapse.

Kilsheimer, who has assisted with other collapses, including of the Florida International University pedestrian bridge and the Pentagon following 9/11, did a walk-through of the Champlain East and North towers, according to a town news release.

Kilsheimer determined there is “no visible evidence of any major structural concern” to these towers. The late Nathan Reiber developed the three buildings in the 1980s.