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Condo board president warned of deterioration, need for repairs months before collapse

"The concrete deterioration is accelerating," the Champlain Towers South Board president wrote in April to residents. "New problems have been identified."
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A letter sent in April to residents of the Miami Beach-area condo that collapsed last week said the building's "concrete deterioration is accelerating" and warned that damage "would begin to multiply exponentially."

The letter, sent by Champlain Towers South Board President Jean Wodnicki, explained to residents why a renovation that had originally been estimated to cost about $9 million had jumped to $16 million in about three years.

Engineering consultant Frank Morabito had been hired in 2018 to get a start on a 40-year recertification process, as is required under the Miami-Dade County building code. His report indicated that there was “abundant cracking” and crumbling in the underground parking garage of the 12-story building.

He also said the waterproofing below the pool deck and entrance drive was failing, “causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas.”

By 2021, the building was in substantial disrepair, Wodnicki wrote in the April 9 letter, which was first reported by USA TODAY.

About half of the condominium building collapsed about 1:30 a.m. last Thursday. A total of 12 people were killed and another 149 were unaccounted for following the discovery of an additional body on Tuesday afternoon.

Morabito's "estimate indicated that the concrete damage observed would begin to multiply exponentially over the years, and indeed the observable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection," Wodnicki wrote in what she called "the State of the Building."

"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, who survived Thursday's collapse, told residents.

"The original scope of work in the 2018 report has expanded. The concrete deterioration is accelerating. The roof situation got much worse," she wrote. "New problems have been identified. Also, costs go up every year. This is how we have gone from the estimated $9,128,433.60 cited in Frank Morabito’s 2018 report, to the much larger figure we have today."

"When performing any concrete restoration work, it is impossible to know the extent of the damage to the underlying rebar until the concrete is opened up. Oftentimes the damage is more extensive than can be determined by inspection of the surface," Wodnicki added.

The urgency with which she addressed residents in April was not the approach officials took in 2018 after Morabito's report was released.

In fact, residents said they weren't told about the report, with one telling NBC News that a Surfside building official said at a meeting a month later "that the building was not in bad shape."

Meeting minutes released by Surfside on Monday night confirm the resident's account. The minutes said Surfside building official Rosendo Prieto told those present at the meeting that he had received and reviewed the structural engineer's report "and it appears the building is in very good shape."

"The permit process, balcony railings, concrete restoration, and waterproofing was discussed," the meeting minutes said.

The day after the meeting, Prieto wrote in an email to then-Town Manager Guillermo Olmedillo that "it went very well."

"The response was very positive from everyone in the room," he wrote. "All main concerns over their 40-year recertification process were addressed."

Prieto is on a leave of absence as a temporary building official for Doral, Florida, the city said. Prieto was an employee of C.A.P. Government, Inc. which was contracted by the City of Doral, according to a statement announcing his leave on Monday.

The city, which did not specify whether or not the leave was voluntary, said it was made aware of the change Monday.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Monday that city officials' failure to disclose the details in the 2018 report was "disturbing."

"We will get to the bottom of it," he said.

All of the victims' families have been notified as of Tuesday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

More than 200 people from multiple agencies continued to work on the mound around the clock as dozens of people are still unaccounted for.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will visit Surfside on Thursday, the White House announced Tuesday.

The city, since Friday, has been releasing documents, meeting minutes and a trove of emails related to the management of the building.

One released email chain revealed that Mara Chouela, a member of the resident-led Champlain Towers South Board, had emailed Prieto in early 2019 hoping to raise a red flag about nearby construction.

"We are concerned that the construction next to Surfside is too close," she wrote. "The terra project on Collins and 87 are digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building."

Prieto responded, "There is nothing for me to check."

Prieto did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. He told The Miami Herald that he does not remember getting the 2018 report, nor does he remember receiving the 2019 emails from Chouela.

A commercial pool contractor who was inspecting the pool last week as part of the 40-year recertification was flabbergasted by what he saw at the building, he told the Miami Herald.

Images captured by a contractor show the conditions inside the pool control room of Champlain Towers South days before collapse.
Images captured by a contractor show the conditions inside the pool control room of Champlain Towers South days before collapse.Miami Herald

“There was standing water all over the parking garage,” said the contractor, who asked not to be named, but shared photos with the outlet.

The contractor told the Herald that the biggest puddle of water was by parking spot 78, located under the pool deck, where Morabito had reported there was "major structural damage."

Morabito recommended that concrete slabs, which were “showing distress” by the entrance and pool deck, “be removed and replaced in their entirety.” He said the concrete deterioration should "be repaired in a timely fashion."

That pool was swallowed into a massive sinkhole shortly before the collapse, now-missing resident Cassondra “Cassie” Billedeau-Stratton told her husband on the phone before her line went dead.

At least three lawsuits have been filed following the disaster, including one Monday by Raysa Rodriguez, who was rescued from a balcony. She recounted in a complaint that seeks class-action status that the building "swayed like a sheet of paper."

A spokesperson for the resident-led Champlain Towers South Condominium Association Inc. said they "cannot comment on pending litigation" and "our focus remains on caring for our friends and neighbors during this difficult time."

Residents who want to relocate from Champlain Towers South's sister building, which was constructed one year later by the same company, are being offered federal assistance.

Champlain Towers North, about a block away, underwent an expedited inspection and Burkett said nothing was found that indicates the tower is in danger. He said a deep-dive inspection of the north tower will be conducted Tuesday by an engineering firm hired by the residents.

While some residents chose to leave, many have stayed put, saying their near-cookie-cutter building is better maintained.

A portion of the collapsed building that is still intact is being closely monitored by structural engineers as search and rescue teams make their way through the debris.

"At this time, it's not considered that the building is at risk of collapse, but it is unstable and so we are we are no longer entering," Levine Cava said Tuesday evening.

Officials said they are working on bringing in additional search teams as two impending storms risk delaying their efforts to find possible survivors. One member of the efforts was taken to the hospital for dehydration on Tuesday.

Levine Cava has ordered a 30-day audit of whether older high-rise buildings under her jurisdiction are complying with the required recertification of structural integrity at 40 years. She said she wants any issues raised by inspections to be immediately addressed. She’s also urged municipalities within the county to follow suit.

Miami, for example, has launched a 45-day audit of buildings six stories and higher that are 40 years old or older.

During a meeting with condo owners Tuesday, city officials said they are evaluating administrative changes and more stringent codes to prevent future tragedies. Recent legislative changes have already made it so that buildings that fail to meet compliance must remove their certificate of use and vacate the buildings, according to Asael Marrero, director of the city's buildings department.

But engineer inspections are currently not mandatory unless a building is seeking a 40-year recertification, Marrero said.