Surfside condo’s neighbors fear for their safety

Source: By Steven Mufson,, Lori Rozsa and Meryl Kornfield, Washington Post June 26, 2021 at 7:32 p.m. CDT • Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2021

Anxiety spreads that other buildings could be in danger of collapse as fires smolder and hopes for survivors fade

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SURFSIDE, Fla. — Surfside officials worried about the potential for new disasters ordered inspections of buildings near the collapsed Champlain Towers South on Saturday, as fires at the disaster site smoldered and hopes of finding survivors faded.

Rescue workers, armed with sonar and cameras, found three more sets of remains, bringing the total to five people dead and 156 others missing inside a haphazard heap of concrete and steel rebar. Officials warned that picking apart the heavy sandwiched apartments was a delicate and dangerous task and that progress would be slow.

Officials said DNA samples collected from relatives of the missing would help in the speedy identification of those found.

Police identified several more victims Saturday night. Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio Lozano, 83; Gladys Lozano, 79; and Manuel LaFont, 54 are confirmed dead, they said. The Lozanos would have celebrated 59 years of marriage next month, according to family.

Authorities said the couple, who lived on the ninth floor, were found together in the rubble, according to Antonio Lozano’s nephew, Phil Ferro.

They would always kind of worry about, oh, I hope that I go first and not you ’cause I could never live without you… And so in a way, it is kind of a blessing that they both went together,” said Ferro, 61, a Miami meteorologist. “And we like to think that they went in their sleep and that they never felt anything.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett suggested residents of Champlain Towers North evacuate. The neighboring structure is nearly identical to the 12-story condominium on the barrier island near Miami Beach that partially caved in early Thursday morning.

Burkett said that while engineers had not found serious flaws in their initial inspections Saturday of Champlain Towers North, their examination was “not a deep dive into the building itself” and “I can’t say I’d be excited about staying in that building myself.”

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The specter of another collapse has been fueled by the public release of a 2018 engineer’s report warning of serious structural flaws in the collapsed condominium. On Saturday, Frank P. Morabito, the engineer who wrote that report, said that “among other things, our report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents and the public.”

The search for causes also widened. At least three companies and two space agencies were reviewing satellite data or conducting on-site inspections in Surfside on Saturday to determine whether there had been any unusual building movement before the Champlain Towers South crumbled. They expect to meet Surfside officials Sunday to discuss the results.

Other communities vowed to take a tough look at the safety of their structures in the face of rising seas and saltwater flooding. Miami-Dade County will launch an audit of all buildings five or more stories high and 40 years and older, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced at a Saturday morning news conference. The audit will be conducted within the next 30 days, she said.

The collapse in Surfside could be a wake-up call for towns along America’s coastlines. “Coastal America is experiencing a slow motion crisis,” said Carl Pucci, founder and president of EO59, a Richmond-based firm that analyzes current and past satellite data down to millimeter levels. Pucci said his 13 employees were poring over data for every building in Surfside to determine whether there had been shifting in the ground movement and how much.

“We are working very hard to determine if the residents are safe in those structures,” Pucci said. He said there had been movement in some structures but he wouldn’t quantify it.

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In nearby Hallandale Beach, Assistant City Manager Nomy Sandoval said the tragedy would prompt a review of about a dozen condo buildings.

A board member of Champlain Towers North urged authorities “to quickly send inspectors or engineers to inspect or verify the safety conditions of the property.”

Salomon Gold said in an email that there is a lot of speculation but “no concrete knowledge” about the safety and condition of his building. He noted the challenge of a possible evacuation of the building because of the age and physical condition of some of the residents.

However, Naum Lusky, the president of the condo association of Champlain Towers North, said that inspectors from Surfside and Miami-Dade County spent more than three hours in his building on Saturday.

“It’s safe,” he said. “They checked all the structure in the lower end of the building, the garage, and everything was okay.” He said some residents have left voluntarily since the neighboring condo collapsed. “But they are coming back now that they know that everything is safe,” he said.

Meanwhile, friends and neighbors waited as rescue crews searched for those missing.

As those search efforts continued across Collins Avenue, a makeshift memorial that sprung up Friday grew the following day. More than 30 pages of photos and names were hung on a chain fence, and flowers and candles also collected at the site. On neon green sticky notes attached to the pages, prayers were written. “Find them Lord!” read one.

Stuffed animals, a Nerf gun and toy football covered with dust that appeared to come from the rubble were also added — a grim reminder of the young victims caught in the collapse.

In the afternoon, a weeping family huddled with their arms wrapped around one another. One woman from the group broke off, reaching toward a photo on the fence. With outstretched arms, she spoke to the page blowing in the wind and then kissed her hand and touched the photo.

Leon Roy Hausmann has tried to keep a singular focus while assisting a team of rescuers searching for signs of life amid the rubble. The 43-year-old Aventura resident, a board member of the Jewish nonprofit rescue group Cadena International, has acquaintances who lived in Champlain Towers South — what he now refers to as “ground zero.”

They used radar equipment to probe for breathing and signs of movement on Thursday and Friday. “For me, my only focus now is for our team to find survivors,” Hausmann told The Washington Post. “There’s nothing else on our minds.”

He said the site was a mountain of concrete slabs meshed with pieces of peoples’ homes — couches, mangled balcony railings, glass windows and doors. It’s uneven terrain, unstable and riddled with holes. “It’s very treacherous,” Hausmann said.

The seven Cadena rescuers, who joined the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue team on-site Thursday afternoon, have battled through the building’s instability and small fires as they probe for survivors. And South Florida’s summer storms have made unsteady ground slippery and harder to navigate.

On Friday evening, they said a Jewish prayer to honor the dead. “There’s always some possibility,” he said. “The last thing that we’re going to do is lose hope.”

Controversy continued to swirl around the engineer’s report in October 2018 warning that he had discovered “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below the pool deck in Champlain Towers South. Morabito, the engineer, said in a structural survey report that waterproofing had failed below the pool deck and entrance drive, allowing damaging leaks.

“Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” Morabito wrote. He said a “major error” had been made in the construction of the building, when waterproofing was laid on a flat slab rather than a sloped surface, to allow water to run off.

But the minds of many were starting to turn toward the future.

The City of Sunny Isles sits about five miles north of the building collapse. Both are upscale beachfront communities sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. Both are populated with high-rise condos that typically sell in the millions for a single beachfront apartment.

Sunny Isles Vice Mayor Larisa Svechin said the city plans to independently review every building that reaches more than three stories. She estimated her community has about 25 buildings that will require a safety review, many of them glistening high-rise apartment buildings with 50 or more floors towering over the Atlantic Ocean.

The city plans to conduct not only a traditional inspection, Svechin said, but also an in-depth review of every high-rise building’s engineering plans. Sunny Isles also plans to revisit buildings that have recently been inspected, she said.

The vice mayor said the newer buildings have pilings that stretch down to the bedrock. But older buildings were built at a time when building codes only required the pilings to go down to where they face “resistance,” she said.

Svechin said her community is concerned about the effect rising tides could have on residents, and the community already spends “an incredible amount of money” pumping out water when it rains.

That type of expensive environmental project could become more frequent as climate change continues unabated.

Daniel Dietch, Surfside’s former mayor and an environmental consultant, said he shaped policy to account for the impact of sea-level rise on the barrier island. In 2019, he led the town’s effort to declare a climate emergency and establish an action plan that included a “resilience fund” for people who lived in spaces at risk of rising waters. The money was later diverted for more immediate uses, such as addressing flooding, the Miami Herald reported.

On Saturday, Dietch cautioned against speculating what could have caused the building collapse. But, he said, “it would be imprudent not to consider potential impacts from climate.”

“There are risks with living in a low-lying beachfront town,” Dietch said, something residents are painfully aware of during hurricane seasons. “Climate change: It’s not the story,” he said. “Or to put it differently, it’s always the story.”

And this week, he said, as the residents grapple with a potentially significant loss of life, what is most needed is what will be required of them in any climate crisis: resiliency. “Whether it’s the shock of an extreme weather event or flooding or extreme heat or any of the stresses, it starts to test the fabric of the community,” he said.

Brittany Shammas, Meryl Kornfield, Joshua Partlow, Aaron Gregg, Caroline Anders and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.