As they say…hindsight is 20/20. The tragedy in Surfside rips your guts out. I had to go there and see it for myself. I did. I then walked over to the memorial and saw pictures of the victims, including little kids, entire families and you wonder how anything like this could have possibly happened. Immediately you want to blame someone. You want justice. You want someone to pay for what happened here. It’s only natural to feel that way. But we need to try to calm down and think this out rationally.
It all starts with the fact that there has NEVER been a building collapse like this that anyone is aware of, not only in Florida, but anywhere in the entire country. Think about that. This has never happened before. There is no precedence for this disaster. Did the Board members have engineering reports warning them that the concrete would deteriorate exponentially if not replaced? Yes they did. Were they told the building would collapse if they don’t immediately fix it? No, they weren’t. In fact, it appears that the Chief Building Official in Surfside actually attended a board meeting and told the community that the building was fine and not in any danger.
The Board no doubt figured that this massive project needs an intense amount of planning. The association needs to apply for a loan. The board needs to prepare for a special assessment. Engineers need to prepare a bid package. The right contractor has to be chosen. This does not happen overnight and it appears that the Board accomplished almost all of these things. Those of you who live in condominiums also know that those board members must have also been fighting intense pressure from many unit owners not to pass a $15,000,000.00 special assessment in the middle of the COVID pandemic no less! While I’m sure the Board members knew that the more time it takes, the more damage would occur and additional repairs would be needed, none of them thought for a moment that delay would result in the collapse of the building. If they did, some of them wouldn’t have been there when the building collapsed. Had the Board members been told by professionals that this building could collapse, then I would change my tune. But there is no evidence that they were told.
Going forward, rest assured that from now on when an engineer inspects a condominium building and observes concrete spalling, the report will indicate that the building may collapse if not repaired promptly. There is nothing to lose by placing that in a report from now on, but perhaps a lot to lose if you fail to place that in a report.
We tend to forget that the average Joe or Sally on a Board of Directors is not an engineer, general contractor or condominium or construction attorney. Many of them have no experience whatsoever in how buildings are constructed and maintained. All they can do is rely on what their experts are telling them. I don’t see any experts telling this board at the Champlain Towers South that this building may collapse. How then can they be expected to know that it would?
Again, this tragedy provokes an automatic impulse in all of us that somebody must be held accountable here. Somebody must pay. Some have even called for criminal prosecution of the Board. As many of you know, being a board member is a thankless job. On your best day, you are harassed, yelled and cursed at, and always second guessed. It’s hard enough to get volunteers to serve on the Board. If you are going to hold directors individually or criminally liable when accidents happen, even tragic accidents, that have never before happened anywhere in any building you are headed down a very dangerous path where it would not make sense for anyone to take the thankless board member position out of fear of losing their money or even their liberty. You would have to be nuts to volunteer.
So while we all want some justice here and some answers, I urge everyone to take the focus off of the Board for a moment. They are too easy a target and should not be made the scapegoat here. Maybe we need to ask why buildings on the ocean don’t have to pass an annual inspection every year by the county or municipality. Maybe we need to ask if there should be stricter scrutiny of buildings built before massive changes to the South Florida Building Code were made after Hurricane Andrew, like the Champlain Towers South. Maybe we need to ask why municipalities are now asking their Building Departments to inspect tall buildings, but never required it previously. Maybe we need to find out why the elevators have to pass an annual inspection but not the structure of the building itself. Maybe we need to find out why the first time a building gets inspected is at the 40 year recertification requirement and why that is only a requirement in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. If you want to find someone or something to blame for this catastrophe, this is where I would start.