‘Significantly worse’: Doomed Miami condo’s concrete deterioration was accelerating in April, condo letter says
Kyle Bagenstose and Romina Ruiz-Goiriena
An April letter sent from the president of the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association in Miami said that damage to the doomed building’s basement garage had “gotten significantly worse” since an inspection about two and a half years earlier and that deterioration of the building’s concrete was “accelerating.”
The letter also suggested that millions of dollars in needed repairs had been a subject of frustration among residents. The letter offers a glimpse into the events leading up to the building’s deadly collapse last week that has left 11 people dead and over 150 missing.
“We have discussed, debated, and argued for years now, and will continue to do so for years to come as different items come into play,” the letter stated.
The April 9 letter was obtained by USA TODAY from a family member of two building residents missing since Thursday’s collapse. The author, Jean Wodnicki, president of the association’s board of directors, survived Thursday’s collapse, a condo association attorney told the media.
Over seven pages, Wodnicki provided an overview of the major repairs required for the building. She noted that in fall 2018, as documents previously released by the town of Surfside show, the association hired engineering firm Morabito Consultants to inspect the building. That inspection found a “major error” in the design of the building, crumbling concrete columns in the garage area beneath the structure, and predicted that failure to fix the problems in the “near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”
In her letter written about 30 months later, Wodnicki noted that “indeed the observable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse” since the first inspection.
“When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface,” she told residents.
Jay Miller, a retired college professor from Philadelphia who moved to Champlain Towers South three years ago, told USA TODAY on Saturday residents knew about an October 2018 report warning of “major structural damage” and ultimately voted to make fixes — though reaching that agreement took time.
“It wasn’t like people were ignoring it,” Miller said.
But when residents first discussed the report in 2018, the $7 million price tag led to turmoil on the condo association’s board, Miller recalled. A new board eventually took over, “extremely dedicated and conscientious people,” Miller said, but they’d lost about a year in dealing with damage they’d been warned about in the report.
Miller also recalled that the board’s recent assessment was much higher.
Marta Castro, a resident of Champlain Tower East, said she routinely talked to people in the south tower who voiced concerned about the amount of the proposed assessment and having enough financial oversight on it.
“They had been talking about it for quite a while,” she said. “The few I talked to were concerned about the financial aspects of it.”
Castro, a former homeowner’s association board member in Champlain Tower East, said the south tower always seemed in disarray, with concrete chips visible and in need of a fresh paint job. She said she was friends with several people in the collapsed tower who are missing and likely dead.
As far as she knew, the south tower’s condo association was competent, she said. But Castro said she’s angered by any lapse in government oversight that would allow the building to reach such a decrepit state.
“My time of mourning lasted three days,” she said. “Now, I’m enraged.”
Wodnicki’s letter provides more detail. It noted that the condition of the building’s roof had become “much worse” and required additional repairs. She noted that cost estimates also increase every year, and that the estimated bill for all repairs had increased from about $9.1 million in 2018 to $16.2 million this year. The letter said the association could repurpose other dedicated funds to the project, but still could only come up with $707,003 in cash-on-hand, leaving a bill of $15.5 million.
“A big, big chunk of that was the structural stuff that needed to be done,” Miller said. “I don’t remember anybody saying we shouldn’t do the concrete work. I think everybody agreed on that.”
Wodnicki said that repairs to the basement’s pool deck area, which engineer Frank Morabito said had been designed on a level surface instead of sloped appropriately to run off water, would be expensive.
“Because so much of the needed concrete/waterproofing work is underground, we must pull up almost the entire ground level of the lot to access the areas that require repair,” Wodnicki wrote.
She cautioned that “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,” she added.
Wodnicki concluded with a note in which she said she hoped the letter would help residents better understand why a coming assessment would be so costly, and said that some residents had believed “we are assessing too much.”
“Your Board of Directors is working very hard to bring this project to fruition,” she wrote, adding they had consulted with engineers, accountants, and attorneys. “We have covered so much ground already to get the project rolling. … We have discussed, debated, and argued for years now, and will continue to do so for years to come as different items come into play.”
Seventy-five days later, the building would collapse.
Teen watched condo collapse from her bedroom thinking ‘that’s going to happen to our building’
When Nina Le Troadec used to look out her bedroom balcony, she saw a skyline. The 15-year-old lives in the Champlain Towers East building in Surfside, Florida — a sister tower to the now-collapsed Champlain Towers South.
But after hearing a huge noise from outside, she went to her bedroom balcony view and couldn’t believe her eyes.
“I rush to open my curtains and right as I look out, I see the second part of the building falling,” she said. “I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that just happened. I couldn’t believe I just saw a building collapse right in front of my eyes.”
Nina is among hundreds of locals who first saw the Champlain Towers collapse — a front-row seat she never asked for, just behind her bedroom curtains, even before first responders or news media caught up.
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The rising high school junior was born in Switzerland but moved to Surfside with her mom and sister in 2012. Her dad lives in New York but visits often. When her family settled in South Florida, they moved to the Champlain Towers — she’s lived there ever since.
She was still awake when the commotion started. A friend had come over earlier Wednesday and her room was a mess. She was cleaning up, hanging out.
In an instant, everything changed.
The family was still in shock as a cloud of dust approached their balcony. They ran to each other in a panic. The next time they looked out the window, half the building was gone.
Nina’s mind trailed to the people she knew who lived in the South tower.
“I remember seeing my old friend’s apartment, half of it gone. I knew a family there too and was so scared for them,” she said.
Everyone the Le Troadecs know who live in Champlain Towers South — including an old classmate from elementary school and family friends — survived.
“I also remember seeing people on the remaining balconies screaming and panicking. They were stuck there,” she said. “At that moment, I didn’t know what was happening. I knew we had to leave our building. All I kept thinking was that’s going to happen to our building.”
Champlain Towers North and East were later deemed safe, though residents have been offered a place to relocate if they’d like. Nina’s building, the East tower, was built over a decade after the North and South towers.
But in the heat of the moment, no one knew what to expect.
Nina woke up her sister and the three women hustled to the ground floor. It was chaotic.
“It was madness in the streets. So many emotions. Everyone was screaming, crying, and panicking,” Nina recalled. “No one believed it. It felt like a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from.”
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They stayed at a hotel where Nina tried to catch up on sleep. She woke to an inundated phone — the rest of the world catching up to her reality.
She had text messages and voicemails from people asking if she was alive.
“Everyone thought it was my building,” she said. “It was just terrifying.”
The aftermath has been surreal for Nina, her family and friends.
There is grief and even fear, but there’s also pride for her hometown and the neighborhood’s camaraderie that’s now being spotlighted around the world.
“Everyone is working so hard in Surfside right now to help in any way possible. I am honestly very proud of our town and everyone outside our town trying to help. It means a lot,” she said. “I hope I can help people understand this story better and how important and tragic this is.”
As of Monday, Nina was back in her condo on the 10th floor.
Follow Emily Bloch on Twitter: @emdrums
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