“You know when a building is in bad shape”: Miami Beach residents fear the Champlain Towers collapse portends future trouble

Search Rescue personnel use a crane to remove a stretcher from the rubble of the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 28, 2021 in Surfside, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Gus Carlson is a New York columnist for The Globe and Mail

To the casual passer-by, there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about the oceanfront construction site amid the long line of condominium towers standing side-by-side along Collins Avenue in Surfside, Florida.

The property is a large hole in the ground, surrounded by a wire mesh fence, with orange barricades demarcating the site from the street. Workers wearing hard hats walk the foundations, while backhoes and trucks roll along the northern property line. A lone police car stands guard nearby.

It would be easy to miss the gravity of this site, the scene of one of the deadliest disasters in recent history in the Miami Beach area: the collapse of a 12-story condominium on the waterfront. of sea in June which left 98 dead.

In the four months since the fall of the Champlain South Towers, many signs of the tragedy have been diminished. The huge Memorial Wall of Hope that drew thousands of mourners was taken down in late August to protect memories from hurricane damage. Sea grass was planted in neat rows between the site and the beach, covering an area where building debris fell. Most of the 12,000 cubic meters of rubble from the collapse has been removed from the site.

Investigation: Before a fatal Florida condo collapse, one of the Canadians behind the development faced decades of lawsuits and fraud allegations:

But for local residents and people who visit this popular seaside community for winter getaways, the gaping hole in the seaside skyline is quite reminiscent of what happened in the wee hours of June 24, and lingering concerns that the collapse may not have been an isolated incident.

“I wouldn’t buy a condo after this,” said Mark Baine, a New York banker who has been wintering in the area for years and recently decided to buy a home. “I will buy a house, not a condo. “

Mr. Baine is no stranger. He grew up in a beachfront community in Palm Beach County, about an hour’s drive north of Surfside, and has family in Miami. He knows all about the questionable development practices of the ’60s,’ 70s and ’80s amid lingering fears that another collapse is waiting to happen.

But as long as waterfront property prices continue to rise, development will continue. Mr. Baine mentions the prices of condominiums in luxury waterfront buildings nearby – one-bedroom units for $ 7 million and four-bedroom units for $ 25 million.

Some locals say a combination of lax building codes, inadequate inspection and enforcement protocols, and the corrosive effects of the oceanfront climate make the possibility of more tragedies like the collapse of Champlain Towers South – and not just in South Florida. Residents say the incident revealed serious flaws in the way the buildings were constructed, maintained and inspected.

The fallen condo may also be a harbinger of things to come along other American coasts, where developers and builders continue to push the limits of building and, in fact, thumb their noses at Mother. Nature.

The faults of the tower were well documented. An engineering report that was part of a 40-year recertification commissioned by the county identified “major structural damage” related to sealing issues around the pool deck and parking lot, and “serious deterioration. »Concrete throughout the building, including load-bearing elements. areas.

“You know when a building is in bad shape,” said Maria Acosta, who lives in a nearby oceanfront condo tower. She said during her visits to friends in Champlain Towers South, she noticed peeling paint and cracked walls, as well as the leaky pool.

Ms Acosta was sleeping the night of the collapse when she was awakened by a loud bang that sounded like the thud of a construction site. Her cousin burst into her room, saying the building down the street had collapsed.

“I said, ‘Buildings don’t collapse,’” Ms. Acosta said. But soon after, “my phone started exploding with people asking me if I was okay.”

Within days, Ms Acosta said, her own building was swarming with inspectors and engineers. The monthly maintenance costs for his unit doubled almost immediately, from about US $ 500 to US $ 1,000. The commotion was so chaotic that she moved to her mother’s house a few miles away until things calmed down.

Back in her seaside unit, she believes that all corrective actions taken are adequate.

“I feel safe now,” she said. “I know our building is in better shape.

Meanwhile, a judge recently approved a plan to sell the South Champlain Towers property for US $ 120 million, a move that has angered some families of the victims, who are hoping that a memorial will be erected on the site. site.

Unfortunately, Baine said, he wasn’t surprised: “It’s all about the money. “

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