Beach residents wondering whether their building could be next

By Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura, Patricia Mazzei and Joseph B. Treaster

Philip Zyne peered over the balcony of his condo near Miami Beach around midday Saturday and pointed to a large crack running in the parking lot below his unit.

Normally, he might not have given it a moment’s thought. But Zyne, 71, lives at Champlain Towers North, the sister condo complex to the building in Surfside, Florida, that partially collapsed into a mass of rubble Thursday, leaving five people dead and 156 missing. Now he was on high alert: Could the building where he lives be next?

“I would’ve never noticed that if this hadn’t happened,” Zyne said.

It is a question on the minds of many South Floridians, especially those in older, beachfront buildings that are faced day in and day out with similar conditions as the Champlain Towers South: salty air, rising seas and aging concrete.

On Saturday, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County announced a 30-day audit of all buildings 40 years and older under the county’s jurisdiction, which does not include Miami and Surfside, where the building fell.

Mayor Charles Burkett of Surfside said he was considering asking residents of Champlain Towers North to voluntarily evacuate as a precaution until their building, which has had no reports of serious problems, could be thoroughly inspected. Inspectors from the town and county spent several hours giving the building an initial inspection Saturday afternoon, according to the town and the condo board.

From the outside, Champlain Towers North, at 8877 Collins Ave., seems identical to Champlain Towers South — same developer and same design, built just one year apart. Most terrifying for Zyne is that his unit is in the same part of the building as the apartments that crumbled in the South complex, those facing the pool and the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s scary,” said Bud Thomas, 55, Zyne’s neighbor upstairs, as he also looked out Saturday. “I’m hoping that this one doesn’t have the same structural problems as the other one.”

Members of the condominium board, who are longtime Champlain Towers North residents, said in interviews Saturday that they are confident their building is in far better shape than the South building was, as a result of prompt and continuous maintenance.

But that has not reassured some residents, who hastily packed bags and found other places to sleep for at least a few days in the immediate aftermath of the nearby disaster.

The Zynes left their apartment to stay with their daughter but came back Saturday. They recalled being awakened in the early hours of Thursday by an alarm signaling that the lights had gone out in their condominium. It was only later that they realized the lights had gone out at about the same time that the nearby building had collapsed.

Three friends of Nora Zyne, 69, remained unaccounted for.

On Saturday, a family of four left the building carrying their belongings and grocery bags en route to a nearby hotel. “We just want to move out, just for safety,” said one member of the family, who declined to be identified.

The atmosphere in the building lobby was somewhat tense as some residents who had heard about a possible evacuation tried to press condo board members for more information.

“Have people looked at the water in the basement?” Betty Clarick, 82, who lives on the fifth floor, asked Hilda Gandelman in the lobby. Clarick also called the building’s maintenance and management “excellent.”

Minutes from a November condo board meeting obtained by The New York Times showed that some maintenance work was underway in hallways, which have been stripped of their baseboards and in some cases remained covered in plastic. The board also discussed a concern about planters near the pool that were leaking into the parking garage below, a problem similar to one of the most serious deficiencies identified in a 2018 engineer’s report about what was causing rebar to rust and concrete to crumble in the South towers.

A third building, Champlain Towers East, which was erected in 1994 with a different design from the other condos, stands between the North towers and the remains of the South towers.

Champlain Towers North was built in 1982, a year after Champlain Towers South. Its mandatory 40-year building recertification is due next year. Naum Lusky, president of the condo board, said the association had begun to work with inspectors but would accelerate efforts in light of the South building tragedy.

He emphasized that the board in the building has addressed problems as they have come up to avoid the kind of major repairs that had been identified as necessary in the South building before half of it came down. He accompanied the town and county inspectors on the tour of the building Saturday and said no big problems were apparent.

“This building is spick and span,” he said. “There is no comparison” to the sister condo.

In a show of his confidence, Lusky, 81, who has lived in the North towers for 22 years, stayed in the building after the neighboring building’s collapse.

Last year, the North building’s balconies were inspected to identify and repair any water leak issues. Work on the pool deck was completed about six months ago, said Gandelman, another condo board member. That work addressed the leaky planters, according to Lusky. The building manager declined to be interviewed.

John Pistorino, a Miami structural engineer, said that the collapse of the South towers did not necessarily mean that the North towers — or any other buildings in the area — were at particular risk of collapse.

“This collapse is so unusual, I don’t think this is indicative of all the buildings we have up and down the coast,” he said. But he added that the collapse was “certainly a warning to do due diligence on all the buildings, including that particular one,” to make sure that the buildings have been well maintained.

It was difficult not to worry about a 39-year-old building so similar to a 40-year-old building that fell in such stunning fashion. Burkett, the Surfside mayor, said beachfront residents from across his small town have called him, nervous.

“Are the buildings on the ocean safe?” they asked him.

What to do took over part of a special meeting of the Town Council on Friday. After consulting with other officials, including Levine Cava, Burkett said Saturday that a voluntary evacuation might be a good idea. He planned to approach the condo board, which has scheduled a meeting for Sunday morning.

“We would rather not make it mandatory,” he said. “If there are people in that building who are comfortable staying here, it seems to me the chances are low that we’d have the same exact problem with that building. But personally I would not want to take that chance.”

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