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Condo law, insurance, oversight, engineering. Surfside collapse could change a lot

Joey Flechas and Douglas Hanks, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

The ripples of the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, have only begun to move from the center of a disaster that has taken weeks to triage.

Families endured the waiting to confirm the loss of their loved ones so they can properly mourn the dozens of people lost. Search crews painstakingly pursued any sign of life, until it became clear they would only be recovering the dead. Investigators began a long process of studying a literal mountain of physical evidence to understand how this could have happened.

As the community moves past the first month of shock, the path forward is framed by questions of law, public policy and governance of the construction and maintenance of towers such as Champlain Towers South.

Even without a clear picture of why the tower fell, minds from across several disciplines, some overlapping, are expected to fixate on one goal: preventing this from ever happening again.

GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT AND ENFORCEMENT

Several layers of government play different roles in overseeing the construction and maintenance of multi-family buildings. The interplay between multiple bureaucracies, and how those governments interact with the owners and management of these buildings, are expected to be examined from city hall to Tallahassee.

In the collapse’s aftermath, many voices started to call for a review of the 40-year recertification process, a requirement for buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to evaluate the building’s structural integrity, make necessary repairs and get government inspectors to sign off on the work 40 years after the building’s construction. The requirement exceeds the demands of the Florida building code. It was created in the 1970s following the collapse of an office building in downtown Miami that was leased by the Drug Enforcement Administration, killing seven people. It’s possible more counties will adopt the standard set by Miami-Dade and Broward.

Changes could require the recertifications to happen sooner, or that they include more rigorous surveys and studies.

At levels of government closest to home, municipal officials who oversee and approve these inspections are considering adjusting their notification timelines and the personnel they employ to inspect and enforce violations.

The collapse in one of Miami-Dade’s small municipalities raised questions about leaving high-rise building inspections to tiny governments. After the catastrophe had governments across Miami-Dade promising more aggressive oversight of older buildings, Surfside requested loans of city and county building inspectors to deploy to properties within town limits.

“We’re a pretty small town. With the number of buildings we want to inspect quickly to see if there are any apparent dangers that need to be addressed, we need more inspectors,” James McGuiness, head of Surfside’s Building Department, said in a July 12 interview. “The city of Miami is sending two building inspectors. Things are looking up.”

At County Hall, there’s legislation pending that would strip some independence from municipal building departments to handle potential structural emergencies themselves.

Legislation by Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins, who represents parts of South Miami-Dade, would require private inspectors working within city limits to notify the county’s building department if they found any structural issues severe enough to risk building failure.

“These type of things have to come to the county,” Cohen Higgns said. “Small towns may not have the resources to handle it.””

Prior to the collapse, the city of Miami beefed up its unsafe structures division by adding more inspectors, and it intends to add more in the upcoming fiscal year. Commissioners might soon consider creating a stricter requirement for what kind of engineer can inspect older buildings inside city limits.

Several cities sent their buildings inspectors on enforcement blitzes immediately after the Surfside collapse, resulting in the processing of a range of violations and the evacuation of some buildings.

Surfside has already asked owners of buildings 30 years or older that are at least three stories tall for their recertifications. Administrators, calling it an “acceleration” of the program, asked owners to submit “actions plans” within 30 days.

CONDO LAW

To own a condominium is to own property under a unique set of Florida laws that dictate what should and should not happen in a building where multiple owners share walls, floors and ceilings. Proposals to reform condo law are nothing new, but the Surfside disaster is spurring an urgent review of regulations that could underscore future legislative changes.

Those state laws are already under a review by a group of experts assembled by the Florida Bar in the weeks since the collapse. The task force will review, among other topics, how condominium boards operate and manage reserve funds for maintenance and repair costs. Another area to examine: How often condominium buildings need to undergo inspections.

The issue of financial reserves is drawing particularly scrutiny — currently, condo associations can completely waive the requirement to maintain cash reserves to pay for needed, potentially very expensive, building improvements. In the case of Champlain Towers South, the association had just over $777,000 in reserves to pay for what was estimated by inspectors to be about $16.2 million in repairs.

 

The task force’s goal is to provide Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislators recommendations for any changes that could help prevent another collapse.

“We will determine if there are any changes that we would recommend through legislation or regulation that could prevent the likelihood of another Champlain Towers South tragedy,” William Sklar, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Law and chair of the task force, told the Miami Herald earlier in July.

The group’s recommendations could come as early as September, when state lawmakers are scheduled to begin committee hearings in Tallahassee.

ENGINEERING REQUIREMENTS

Engineers from across Florida have launched a similar study that could generate recommendations for changes to state law.

Members of four major engineering associations have partnered to look at whether Florida should require mandatory reinspections of tall buildings after completion, who would be allowed to conduct those reinspections and how that work could be done without causing serious financial hardship for condominium associations.

The groups are: the Florida Engineering Society, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida, the Florida Structural Engineers Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers. They’re collecting data and holding weekly calls.

Some of their work will continue past advocacy for reform, namely, a bill that failed in this year’s legislative session that would create a special license for structural engineers. Advocates have said a new license, which would be obtained by passing a more rigorous test, could help prevent building collapses. Currently, any professional engineer can sign off on a building’s plans. A previous effort to pass this reform failed in 2015 when then-Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

Federal investigators with a focus on the technical aspects of the Champlain’s collapse arrived in Surfside days after the disaster, with hopes of understanding what changes in regulations and building codes could prevent another similar building failure. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has studied disasters in the past, including 9/11 and Hurricane Maria, where there may be new science to be learned.

Experts from NIST who are conducting the analysis include two structural engineers and a geotechnical engineer specializing in soil and rock mechanics. They are looking at evidence samples from the site.

“This is a fact finding, not fault finding, type of an investigation,” said James Olthoff, the NIST director. “It will take time, possibly a couple of years.”

INSURANCE

The way insurance claims are paid out after this disaster could have long-range ramifications. The state’s insurance regulator has requested all insurers to submit information about any policies associated with Champlain Towers South. It’s the type of notice from the Office of Insurance Regulation that typically follows hurricanes.

The office has not specified what it planned to do with that data, but in the past, the office has tracked the filing and payment of claims. Following Hurricane Michael in 2018, data collected by the office later showed that nine months after the storm ripped through the Panhandle, insurers had yet to pay more than 21,000 claims.

Court proceedings following the collapse have provided a general view of the insurance picture. A receiver for the Champlain recently said the property had $48 million of insurance coverage held by the condo association — $30 million for property damage and $18 million for personal injury. Some insurers have already paid or have committed to paying full personal injury coverage. One other insurer appears ready to commit to the full property damage coverage.

The industry, which already considers older condos higher risks in a state where hurricanes pose an annual threat, is bracing for potential changes. Barry Gilway, president and chief executive officer of state-run insurer Citizens Property Insurance, told his board to consider making tighter requirements before writing any condo policies. That could mean a “full structural integrity engineering report” might be needed before a condo could get property insurance.

He said he expects to see some private insurers pull out of the condo market.

“There’s going to be a pretty significant upheaval to residential condominium business, and we have to be prepared as far as what our position’s going to be and how rigid our position’s going to be.”

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(Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Ana Ceballos, Rene Rodriguez, Douglas Hanks, Alex Daugherty, Linda Robertson and Martin Vassolo; Herald writer Luis Joel Méndez González; and el Nuevo Herald staff writer Ana Claudia Chacin contributed to this report. Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau staff writer Lawrence Mower also contributed.)

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