PINELLAS COUNTY — More
than a week after a deadly Surfside, Florida, building
collapse, there are still plenty of questions about what led
to the tragedy and whether the same thing could conceivably
happen in the Tampa Bay region.
The I-Team interviewed a world-renowned engineer, a building
inspector and an attorney who represents clients in building
defect cases about what they think contributed to the
"It will take months and months"
Just yards from the shore of Surfside Beach, somber rescue
workers comb through tons of debris, recovering the bodies
of people who once called Champlain Towers home.
Matthys Levy, who
served as a structural design engineer for hundreds of
building and bridge projects, was asked to assess the
collapse of the World Trade Center following the terrorist
attack on September 11, 2001.
He says investigators on the ground in Surfside are
undertaking a similar process.
“They have to remove concrete essentially layer by layer in
order not to destroy the evidence that could be there,” Levy
said. “It will take months and months and months.”
Levy, who also wrote the book “Why Buildings Fall Down” says
a 2018 inspection report prepared for Champlain Towers
reveals big clues about what may have contributed to the
collapse, including water intrusion, cracking and spalling.
Spalling is the
process in which concrete peels, breaks and chips away,
exposing steel supports encased within columns.
“You get kind of an inkling of what should have been done
because there were indications then that the building had
some problems. The question is why was there nothing done at
that time?” Levy said.
“The same things are going on in the whole state of Florida”
Retired building inspector Glenn Hall says it’s not unusual
to see significant damage to condominiums in Florida,
especially in units built in coastal areas.
“I’ve worked all over the state of Florida and the same
things are going on in the whole state of Florida,” Hall
said. “You’ve got sea surges, you’ve got saltwater
intrusion. You’ve got 40 years of that stuff beating on that
building, getting into those windows.”
Hall says that damages stucco, concrete and steel.
“Concrete does two things. It gets hard and it cracks. So
when it cracks, water gets into the cracks and it gets to
the rebar and starts rusting the steel,” Hall said.
He says something as minor as water leaking into the walls
and from balconies on upper floors can contribute to
problems within a building’s support structure, especially
if leaks occur over extended periods of time.
20,030 Pinellas County high-rise, or mid-rise condo units,
were built in 1981 or before
There are more than 100,000 condominium units in the Tampa
Bay Region, according to property records in Hillsborough,
Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota Counties.
Mid-rise buildings, which stand between4 and 11 stories and
high-rise buildings, which are 12 stories or more, as most
prominent along the Gulf Coast and Tampa Bay, where property
prices are the highest and where weather conditions are
often the worst.
Because these are often considered the best locations, they
also include some of the Tampa Bay area’s tallest buildings.
In Pinellas County, which has the largest coastline, the
property appraiser says there are 283 mid-rise or high-rise
condo complexes built in 1981 or earlier. Those contain
But experts say age alone doesn’t determine which ones are
most at-risk for serious problems.
Architect Johnny Dagher recently bought a condo in a
12-story-348 unit high-rise building in Clearwater Beach
which was constructed in 1962.
“It’s a lot of lives here. You want a board that’s really
active in making sure everything has been taken care of,”
He says the homeowner’s association board sent owners an
email last week assuring them there were no major structural
“A well-maintained building will show no problems at all
after 40, 50, 60 years. But a badly maintained building
could show problems after 10 or 20 years,” said Levy.
Issues at Champlain Towers started 20 years ago
Homeowners claim in court documents that the Champlain
Towers board failed to adequately maintain its building.
One lawsuit filed days after the collapse alleges studies
from the late 1990s show the tower was “progressively
sinking into the ground."
The owner of a ground-level unit in Champlain Tower sued the
homeowners’ association twice.
“They were having stucco breaking off. Concrete exposed.
Steel seemingly corroded,” attorney Daniel Wagner said.
He represented the owner in a 2015 case, which was
That same homeowner sued the HOA in 2001 for similar
incidents of water intrusion, which she claimed caused more
than $15,000 in damage in each suit.
The same woman recently contacted Wagner to complain of
“Whatever work they did was not appropriate or was
negligently done,” Wagner said.
Luckily, her family was not in the building when it
Proposed changes in Florida’s inspection process
“The unit owners, they put their faith and their trust in
their condo boards. Not only to keep the lights on, but more
importantly, to keep them safe,” Wagner said.
The Champlain Towers board paid thousands to the engineering
firm that conducted the study and identified the problems in
2018, but did not yet spend the millions of dollars needed
to make the repairs.
Under state existing state law, HOA boards can’t be forced
to make repairs unless conditions pose an immediate threat
to public safety.
“Looking at them and repairing them are two different
things. You can look at them all you want and tell them 'OK,
this is what you need.' Whether they fix it or not is up to
them,” Hall said.
“I would like to see some change to the codes. Similar to
what happened after Hurricane Andrew where they refined the
whole code to make sure those types of horrible tragedies
don’t happen again,” Wagner said.
Experts say condo owners should become involved with their
associations, attend board meetings and insist that
maintenance issues are quickly addressed.
“Someone else is not responsible. It’s still your own house
in a way, only it’s your own house up in the air. And you
have to make certain that someone’s taking care of it,” Levy
As a result of the biggest mass casualty event of its kind
in Florida, a new law is proposed for the next legislative
session, requiring regular inspections of condominiums, but
it’s unclear how boards could be forced to perform