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Months Before Florida Condo Collapsed, Residents And The Board Sparred Over Repairs

Search and rescue teams look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on Wednesday in Surfside, Fla.
Giorgio Viera
AFP via Getty Images
Search and rescue teams look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on Wednesday in Surfside, Fla.

Seven months before the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., the condominium association board and residents were still sparring over expensive repairs needed in their building.

A 2018 engineering report warned of "major structural damage" and a construction error in the building. The structural slab was deteriorating; it was flat instead of sloped. Water couldn't drain properly and pooled on the surface. The concrete began to crumble, and support columns rusted.

As NPR first reported, a Surfside town official told residents a month after that October 2018 report that their building was "in good shape." In the next two years, though, the building's structural condition worsened. Follow-up inspections by the same engineer found growing problems. Older, multistory buildings in Miami-Dade County are required to undergo a 40-year safety recertification process.

New documents obtained by NPR reveal the board and residents were shown an urgent PowerPoint presentation from the property manager dated November 10-11, 2020. The language was stark. One slide explained in bold, uppercase lettering: WHY WE HAVE TO DO ALL THIS NOW.

Another warned, "This Will Be Expensive No Matter What Choices We Make. The main expenses by far are related to items that are not cosmetic or even seen: concrete, roof, generator room, fire wall."

The 2018 price tag to fix the building's problems was estimated at $9 million. But by 2020, those figures blossomed to more than $12 million. The board wanted to take out a $15 million line of credit to begin the repairs. Condo residents would have to pay their share, about $100,000 each.

The presentation outlined options for residents, including a vote to increase monetary reserves. Another slide said, "Our building is at a turning point. We have decisions to make as a family about our future." Residents were frustrated. Another slide warned: "Complaining Or Shouting At Each Other Doesn't Work! Voting Is The Best Way To Understand What The Majority Wants."

Months later, in April 2021, condo board president Jean Wodnicki wrote a letterto residents noting that discussion about the fixes had gone on for years and that problems with the concrete were accelerating. "When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface," Wodnicki wrote.

Documents provided to NPR show the board approved seeking a $15 million line of credit on April 13, 2021. The structural repairs had not yet begun when the condo collapsed two months later.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.