I was selected by the judge overseeing the Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, Florida, to be the insurance coverage counsel for the class of victims. There were numerous lessons that all condominium boards, their lawyers, and property managers should learn from studying that tragedy. One of those is the role of inspections to critical areas of the structural integrity of the condominium.

Even without being in Hurricane Ian’s path, a condominium was evacuated this week following an engineering assessment:

An evacuation order has abruptly forced out residents of a 14-story oceanfront building on the same avenue where a condominium collapse killed nearly 100 people last year.

The city posted an unsafe structure notice Thursday evening at the Port Royale condominium, Miami Beach spokesperson Melissa Berthier said in an email.

A structural engineering report prompted the evacuation of the 164-unit structure, which is in the process of undergoing a required recertification. An engineer discovered that a main support beam identified for repair 10 months ago had shifted and that a crack in the beam had expanded, and other structural supports may need repair as well, the report said.

One resident, renovation contractor Marash Markaj, who lived in the building for more than six years, said the damage extends beyond a single support beam.

‘I’ve seen the issues for many years,’ Markaj told The Associated Press. He said he tried to report the issues – including cracks in a column and water standing in the garage area for weeks at a time – to the building management and to the city’s building department.1

One point of the title and my bringing this news story to your attention is that the assessment must have a timely follow-up if it finds damage or a need for repair. Accordingly, condominiums should have an initial assessment. Then, if anything is found needing structural repair, it needs a timeline for repair acceptable to the engineer. Finally, there needs to be timely follow-up assessments to ensure that the damage is not becoming critical before it is finally fixed. This protocol was not followed by Champlain, its lawyers, and those involved in leadership roles. This lack of protocol was ultimately fatal.

Merlin Law Group has been involved representing policyholders with structural damages caused by hurricanes since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Every hurricane has a different wind field which impacts buildings in different ways. Hurricane Ian packed a lot of punch in some areas. One of its distinguishing characteristics is the length of time its high wind bands lasted for many hours in some locations. Long-term high wind buffeting can cause subtle damage to buildings most people will not discern. It takes a professional to closely inspect and uncover those.

What is the upside following an engineering assessment that finds no damage and structural issues? This can be reported to the association members, the condominium’s insurance agent, and insurer. It will help with future insurance rates and increase the value of the condominium units.

What is the downside if something is found damaged or in need of repair? Nothing. This is the only proper and responsible way of thinking following the lessons learned from Champlain Towers.

Honesty and transparency about the safety of people and structural security for the building is job one for condominium leadership. From either a personal safety or financial standpoint, taking care of damage and structural problems need to be faced immediately. They only get worse and more expensive if delayed. We need to find and correct structural problems faster before they become critical and much more costly.

The bottom line is that if you have a leadership role in a condominium association and it was in the path of Hurricane Ian, you should advise the association to obtain an engineering structural assessment looking for damage and any structural problems.

Engineer Bill Bracken and I have been asked to provide a presentation about lessons from the Champlain Towers Collapse at the Windstorm Insurance Conference, which will be held in Orlando on January 24-27.

Thought For The Day

Your own safety is at stake when your neighbor’s wall is ablaze.
1 Kozan, Daniel, and Frisaro, Freida. Miami Beach condo building evacuated near deadly collapse. Associated Press. Oct. 28, 2022. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/miami-evacuations-surfside-building-collapse-6dbd7f75ce91c27ab358e0d0ab0794fb