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As Surfside Building Collapse Investigation Continues, Anxiety Builds At High Rises Across South Florida

 A view of the Champlain Towers South from Harding Avenue on June 26, 2021 as smoke rises from the building
Verónica Zaragovia
A view of the Champlain Towers South from Harding Avenue on June 26, 2021.

For the residents of the Champlain Towers North building, seeing the South tower collapse last week has presented an unimaginable crisis. The two buildings are essentially identical.

“It’s the same architect, same developer, more or less the same building plan,” said Philip Zyne, who's lived full-time in the building for five years, and owned an apartment there for about 10 years. “It’s got the same design as ours. It’s got a few less units, a little bit smaller but it’s basically the same building.”

Zyne said anxiety about the structural integrity of the building is palpable.

“There were some inspectors that came by from the city and the county and I believe someone from even Washington was there,” Zyne recalled. “They came in and they did a preliminary review, spent about an hour and they said everything appears to be OK, but we need to get a full evaluation."

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Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said that despite those reassurances, he does have some doubts about the North tower.

"People have asked me if I would spend the night in that building and I have told them that I wouldn't be comfortable spending the night in that building," Burkett said.

The Sunday after the collapse, Burkett announced that any residents of the North tower who don’t feel comfortable staying there would be provided with temporary housing, and the evacuation is optional.

Zyne said he appreciates the gesture, but for now he’s staying put.

"I’m gonna stay there until I know something more definitive," he said. "What is the chance that the building is gonna collapse the same week or the same month that the other building? It’s not gonna happen. Plus our building has been well maintained. I do want to say that, as far as I know, the work has been well maintained in our building.

Some residents of the North tower have taken advantage of the offer to relocate, and condo dwellers in other parts of South Florida are now wondering about their own buildings.

From Beachfront Buildings To Brickell

Brickell Avenue is a canyon of high-rise condos. The Brickell Homeowners Association says about 90,000 people live there and, this week, hundreds listened in on a meeting the association arranged with attorneys who specialize in condo law, the director of Miami’s building department, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

"People are very anxious and understandably so," said Suarez. "The associations are like cities. You're a self-contained organization. And your primary responsibility, just like a city’s primary responsibility, is to take care of our common areas, our streets, our sidewalks. And if we fail to do that, someone could get hurt."

After the collapse, Miami, Miami-Dade County, and Miami Beach all ordered rapid inspections on buildings that are at least 40 years old and due for re-certifications, starting at four or six stories. That adds up to nearly 650 buildings.

Miami Beach has the most at just over 500 and city officials inspected more than a hundred this week. Commissioner Michael Góngora said seniors living in older buildings are especially anxious.

"One person mentioned to me they saw a leak in their building," said Góngora. "Another mentioned they saw a crack. With everything that they're seeing on the news today, they're living in great fear."

Góngora is an attorney specializing in condo law and he wants buildings with a lot of senior residents to be inspected now, even if they’re not due for the 40-year recertification. In Miami-Dade County, inspectors are doing additional checks on buildings that have been tagged as unsafe, even if they don’t meet the 40-year threshold, either.

At one four-story building, on Northeast 195th Street, people have been ordered to stay off their balconies after an inspector found problems with a first-floor support column.

Officials in parts of Palm Beach County, including Boca Raton, are also taking a closer look at their older buildings and existing codes.

In Miami, as an extra precaution, the city wants the older buildings checked in the next 45 days by more experienced engineers. They need to have already certified at least three similar buildings.

"What we wanted to do is go above and beyond what the letter of today's code calls for and who is qualified to recertify those buildings," said Ace Marrero, the city of Miami’s building director.

Attorneys said the collapse of the Champlain Towers South will almost surely lead to revised laws, like what happened after Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992.

"We really need to get into evaluating the useful life, the replacement cost and making sure that's calculated and then the second part of this is it too easy for the owners to waive the reserves," Marrero added.

Attorney David Podein said laws need to do a better job of ensuring that owners are aware of problems and that condo boards are saving enough money — the reserves — to make repairs. Podein specializes in condo law at Haber Law.

"The building’s deteriorating by nature," Podein said. "There's only one pot of honey to pay for these things if you're not putting more honey into the pot. Now, when are you going to do it? You're on notice that it's going to have to be done at some time."

Podein lives in a condo building and he knows coming up with the fixes won’t be easy. Condo buildings are like neighborhoods, with investors buying up some units to make money and other people living there with families, by themselves, with partners, kids or parents who just want a nice, safe place to live.

'It Could've Been Any Building'

Elsie Miranda wants that safe place to live, too. She came to see the memorial in Surfside, on the fence of a tennis court just across from Champlain Towers South. Miranda lives in a condo in Brickell. She’s worried about the safety of her building, and believes building budgets need to prioritize the value of life.

"We have to reassess our fundamental values," said Miranda. "Do we really think that humanity and our communities are worth the money that we need to spend to make things right? At the end of the day, people are willing to pay whatever they could to get back their relatives and it's no longer an option."

A memorial stretches along a fence of a tennis court across from the Champlain Towers South in Surfside.
Ver´ónica Zaragovia
A memorial stretches along a fence of a tennis court across from the Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

The Saturday after the building collapsed, Shalom Yehudiel went with his wife and daughter to walk on the sand near the Champlain Towers building. A month and a half ago, they moved from northern New Jersey to Surfside, which seemed like the picture perfect town to them.

"Everybody in Surfside right now is really on edge because that's one building," Yehudiel said. "It could've been any building."

His building is a few buildings away from the Champlain Towers. The one he and his family live in was built in the mid-1990s. Building management got in touch about inspections coming soon, "and whatever steps they're going to be taking in order to make sure that our building is up to code and to ensure our safety," he added.

At the site of the collapse, more than 200 search and rescue workers are now going into their second week — with work being halted early Thursday, July 1 — looking for victims through the rubble. In the coming months, as inspections are completed, they hope to get a better idea of what shape older buildings are in — and the work that may need to be done to make them safe.

— WLRN's Palm Beach County reporter Wilkine Brutus contributed to this report

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care, as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics for the station. Contact Verónica at vzaragovia@wlrnnews.org
Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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