Rescuers are continuing the search at the Champlain Towers South, and it may take months to determine what toppled the 12-story condominium last month north of Miami Beach. But the tragedy has already exposed gaps in the way Florida manages high-rise buildings. That’s an invitation to another disaster in a condo-haven like Florida, where tall towers line the beaches, and where the impacts of climate change pose growing risks to lives and property, especially along the coast.
As the state looks to learn from this disaster, three changes come to mind.
• Inspect more frequently. Authorities are examining whether flaws in construction near the base of the 136-unit high rise caused the 40-year-old tower to collapse, likely killing more than 140 people. Unfortunately, investigators have little of a paper trail, as only two counties in Florida — Miami-Dade and Broward — require local officials to recertify that a building is safe after it receives its initial certification of occupancy.
And recertification is required only after a building reaches 40 years old. That is far too long a lag time to review a building’s structural integrity, especially in hurricane-prone Florida, where millions of people live and work in these buildings.
Florida needs to require that these buildings be re-inspected more regularly, and it needs a tracking system to monitor building conditions across the state.
• Enforce the rules. But expanding the requirement for inspections means nothing if cities and the state refuse to enforce the law.
The New York Times reported last week that dozens of multistory buildings in Miami-Dade had either failed major structural or electrical inspections required after 40 years or had not submitted the reports at all. County records showed 17 of those cases had been open for a year or longer; two cases were against properties owned by the county itself, while the oldest case had sat unresolved since 2008, the Times found.
This lack of urgency is inexcusable. And it sends a message throughout the development industry, commercial landlords and condominium associations that the inspections process is a paper tiger.
These reviews are essential to assess building safety, and to provide a lens on whether design, construction and maintenance standards are adequate, faithfully followed and evolve with the times.
• Support ongoing maintenance. A consultant’s report commissioned in 2018 in advance of the Surfside tower’s 40-year recertification noted extensive damage from crumbling steel, cracking concrete and failed waterproofing that was causing “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck.
The cost to repair — estimated at more than $9 million — sent the condo association into a tailspin, as residents faced large special assessments to finance the work. Experts told the Miami Herald that Florida needs to require condominium associations to maintain reserves so they can promptly pay for needed building repairs.
State law requires that condo associations produce an annual budget that includes a reserves budget for deferred maintenance. But the law also allows a majority of the members at a condominium board meeting to waive the reserve requirement.
Condo boards are also comprised of volunteers who may be unfamiliar with construction, contract management and budgeting, adding to their hesitancy to force costly assessments on their neighbors.
It’s senseless for a state that inspects fire sprinklers and elevators on an ongoing basis to not revisit a tower’s structural integrity. Local and state authorities both have a role in bringing more oversight to the market. And tenants, property owners and insurers alike have an interest in keeping Florida’s high-rises as durable as possible.