AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The death toll from the condominium collapse in Surfside, Fla., has reached 18. And now NPR is learning new details about concerns over the building before the accident. Our team has found that Champlain Towers South was closely scrutinized, inspected and monitored by government officials in the months before it collapsed, but building inspectors never demanded major repairs. Documents obtained by NPR show little sign of urgency, even as warnings about the condos' safety continued to grow. NPR's Brian Mann has been reporting on this and joins us now.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK, so at the beginning of all this, town officials had been suggesting that this building just wasn't on their radar before the collapse last week. Tell us, what do these documents show that contradicts that?
MANN: Yeah, they do tell a very different story, Ailsa. This building got a lot of attention from the town of Surfside beginning in 2018. That's when building officials were given this troubling engineering report that showed real structural concerns. And what NPR has now learned is that after that moment, town officials continued to interact with the building and its managers frequently. And that's because a process had begun. This is a process mandated by Miami-Dade County for buildings as they approach their 40-year mark after construction. It's a review that's supposed to keep residents of these older buildings safe. And this is the heartbreaking part. In a way, it almost worked. These documents show that the review found really serious problems. What appears to be missing is any follow-through.
CHANG: Right, you found that town officials actually did mandate some immediate actions. What did they order?
MANN: Again, this part is troubling. The town kept ordering the managers of the condo to do things like change paving stones and repair a gate. They were ordered in 2020 to alter outside lighting to protect nearby turtle habitat on the beach. Those orders included deadlines and the threat of fines. They included on-site inspections and meetings with town officials. What's missing is any sense of urgency in the documents about the building's bigger problems - you know, those concrete and steel foundations that were clearly decaying. Town codes we found allow government officials to mandate repairs within 150 days as part of the 40-year recertification process, but months and then years went by without any order of that kind being issued.
CHANG: Wow. Now, I know that NPR has acquired more documents that show a growing fear among some on the condo association's board about the building's condition. And I understand that one memo sent earlier this year to residents described the, quote, "desperate needs of the building." Were those warnings also shared with town officials?
MANN: We don't know yet. Government regulators were clearly at the building. They were conducting inspections. They were communicating with these engineers and contractors as this 40-year recertification process advanced. It's not yet clear exactly how much the town knew about these later engineering inspections that showed deepening problems. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett has ordered a thorough review of what happened here. He says all the documents about these communications between the town and the building's managers - he says they will eventually be made public.
CHANG: But why was the repair work delayed so long?
MANN: Yeah, the documents we've looked at suggest there was real disagreement and infighting among condo residents about the costs of the repair work, which had ballooned to an estimated $16 million. Earlier this year, condo board president Jean Wodnicki sent an email to residents saying that this 40-year recertification process did require them to finally get the work done. And in that email, she said inspections conducted as part of the government-mandated review had turned up issues that she described - and I'm quoting here - as "life and safety issues." But again, for reasons we don't understand yet, Ailsa, the town kept focusing on relatively minor issues. One order sent to the condo last month ordered managers to replace outdoor lighting by June 25. Of course, the building collapsed early in the morning, a day before that deadline.
CHANG: That is NPR's Brian Mann looking at how a government oversight program designed to monitor the safety of older buildings in Miami-Dade County failed to prevent the Surfside condo disaster.
Brian, thank you so much.
MANN: Thanks, Ailsa.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.