SURFSIDE, Fla. — Robert Andai was visiting friends and neighbors in the Champlain South tower just five hours before its sudden collapse June 24.
Andai says he was one of the first residents to move into the Champlain South tower, 8777 Collins Avenue in Surfside, when it was built in 1981. Seven years later, he moved two properties over to the Champlain North tower, 8877 Collins Ave., a building that appears to be a near-twin to the south tower built in 1982.
The 12-story north tower has 24 units fewer than the 12-story south tower did. The south tower was beige with brown trim, and the north tower looks sleeker with gray and navy blue trim. They were built one year apart and from the outside seemed of similar design.
But Andai believes there is a significant difference between Champlain North and the collapsed South tower — the homeowners association boards, which are separate.
“Two different animals,” said Andai, 73, the north tower’s vice president.
Andai and the homeowners association president, Naum Lusky, say several inspectors have given the north condo a “clean bill of health” — including a prominent structural engineer recently hired by the town, who visited the building in the wake of the collapse. Both board members said they’ve been proactive about addressing issues with the building, which is nearing a required 40-year recertification survey itself. The south tower had formally begun the process.
Still, some residents were concerned enough about the tragedy next door to move out — at least temporarily.
The north condo’s management company went door to door last week to survey residents. About half of the building’s 113 units are unoccupied as second homes. Of the units that are occupied, half of the residents have left on their own accord, while the other half have stayed. The Miami Foundation is providing resources to relocate those families since they do not qualify for federal aid.
“To see a building two buildings over and to know that you have an affiliation with that building by name, by location, by history,” said Rebecca Fishman Lipsey, the foundation’s president. “I understand they must feel scared and feel concerned.”
Management identified two families that want to leave but need assistance. One is a family of six with three children. They could not be reached for comment.
Lipsey says the foundation is still working to determine the best way to give support, either through donations or connections with hotels and airbnb. Donations can be made through supportsurfside.org.
Last week, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he called a meeting at the north tower to speak with the homeowners association board about plans for further inspections of the building and sending a letter to residents about relocating.
Allyn Kilsheimer, a renowned structural engineer retained by the town to study the collapse, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that he has visited the north tower three times and hasn’t seen anything alarming.
The north building has had a “series of leaks” in its parking garage area over the years, he said, but it appears the condo association has taken steps to address them — such as installing “gutters” to direct water away from the garage and replacing waterproofing in outdoor areas.
“I saw very few problems as far as deterioration in the garage,” Kilsheimer said, adding that he “didn’t see anything like what I have read about” in the south tower. An engineer’s report in 2018 found that water didn’t drain properly from the south tower’s pool deck, causing substantial concrete deterioration that was expected to get “exponentially” worse over time.
Kilsheimer said he wasn’t sure if the north tower was constructed with an entirely flat pool deck — something engineer Frank Morabito called a “major error” in the south tower’s design in his 2018 report. But Kilsheimer said that, when the south tower replaced its waterproofing, he believes concrete was installed so that the area would slope and drain properly.
So far, Kilsheimer’s assessments are based solely on observations and conversations with Champlain Towers North board members. He said he has yet to ask the board to turn over any documents, including inspection reports from the building’s original construction. The board members also did not provide any engineering reports or documents about repairs to the Herald.
“When I talk to them [again], I will [ask],” Kilsheimer said.
The building is due for its 40-year recertification next year. Andai said the homeowners association is interviewing engineers to conduct the required inspection and expects a report to be ready in about a month.
But Kilsheimer said that, in the absence of evidence of structural problems at the north tower, he has no reason to believe it’s unsafe. He extended that logic to the entire region.
“I would let my kids and grandkids live in apartments on the coast of Florida. You can’t live in fear of everything your whole life,” he said. “There’s nothing that I know or anybody else knows that would say this is a problem in the South and therefore a problem in all buildings along the ocean.”
Burkett had a different take Tuesday, telling reporters he has continued “deep concerns” about the north tower given its similarity to Champlain Towers South.
“We are doing a deep dive with respect to the sister building … which is essentially the same building, built by the same developer at the same time, with the same plans, probably with the same materials,” Burkett said. “Given we do not know why the first building fell down, we have significant concerns about that building and the residents in there.”
Burkett said the town plans to work with the north building to do a deep dive on the structure, “including ground-penetrating radar, the columns, the beams, the slabs, and try to get our arms around what may be happening, what did happen.”
Burkett said additional experts were being brought into the north tower from the National Institute of Standards and Technology near Washington, D.C.
“The condo board is also in the process of negotiation with a private engineer to do a study,” Burkett added, explaining that the HOA’s private investigation will occur separately from the town’s.
Lusky says the homeowners association board has shared any reports given by visiting inspectors and professionals with residents.
“I tried to convince them that people are secure in the building,” said Lusky, 81.
Hugo Landivar, the building’s manager, gave two Miami Herald reporters a tour of the underground garage and pool deck. The balconies were redone to get rid of the tile, which weighs more and hides water damage, and were sealed. Landivar, as well as Andai and Lusky, say they recently waterproofed the pool with high quality materials.
“We take care of the building,” Landivar said. “We don’t let any water stay in the building. The top priority has been to take care of the foundation of the building.”
Landivar showed reporters a business card from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and said that inspectors did not find any damage on the columns. But a spokeswoman from NIST said the expert was there not to inspect the north tower for its health, but to study it to find out what went wrong with the south tower because the buildings are similar.
Lusky said the experts who have passed by have “all given us approval.” He said Kilsheimer told them that their building was “one of the better buildings he’s seen.”
Lusky says the board has tried to fix things as they come. Both Andai, the vice president, and Lusky say their own technical backgrounds help them understand and manage issues. Lusky was a developer with expertise in construction while Andai has a background in aviation and aerodynamics.
“You don’t wait 40 years,” he said.
Andai understands the concerns and why some choose to leave. But he is staying put, believing in the work he’s done with his condo board.
“The only reason we do it is we’re interested in keeping up the building,” he said. “Our families live here.”
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(Miami Herald staff writer Marie-Rose Sheinerman contributed to this report.)