It could take months to find cause of Florida condo collapse, engineer says

2018 structural survey showed concrete deterioration

First responders from Central Florida and around the world are helping in the search for survivors five days after a condominium collapsed in South Florida.

ORLANDO, Fla.First responders from Central Florida and around the world are helping in the search for survivors five days after a condominium collapsed in South Florida.

The death toll has risen to 10 with more than 100 people unaccounted for.

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The big question still remains: What caused that building to collapse?

A local engineer says it could take weeks or even months for investigators to find out.

“When you go up high, especially in the coastal areas, the foundation design is very critical. Soil conditions determine the structural behavior,” Dr. Necati Catbas said.

Catbas is a civil engineering professor at the University of Central Florida. He is not involved in the investigation into the collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium in South Florida, but said there are many factors that go into the potential cause.

“Maybe the foundation, the materials or change in the use of the structure. It could be damage or deterioration... even sinkholes as we’ve seen in Florida before,” Catbas said.

Images documented by Morabito Consultants in 2018 show evidence of problems that the engineering firm said required extensive and costly repairs. (Courtesy: The Town of Surfside)

The city of Surfside released construction and inspection reports showing the beachside condominium is 13 stories tall with 135 units. The high-rise was built in 1981.

“After search and rescue efforts are completed, the engineers investigating the cause will have to collect samples like metal and concrete. They can’t go in until it’s safe for them, so it might take weeks or months to do these studies to really understand what caused this failure,” Catbas said.

A 2018 structural survey of the building documents failing joint sealants and waterproofing below the pool deck, entrance drive and parking garage. An inspector noted that, “Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”

Those types of issues are something Catbas said could be monitored using sensors built into the structures, or vehicles like drones and small robots.

“If you look at concrete, the infrared can see things that you can’t see with the naked eye,” Catbas said. “These are early warning systems. We need to seriously think about how we are going to use these technologies.”

Catbas said the technology is already being used in many landmark properties to alert building owners and engineers of any changes in the structure or soil conditions below the foundation. He said these sensors could prevent collapses like the one in Surfside and save lives.

“It’s very heartbreaking. So as engineers we need to make sure we do our jobs right,” Catbas said.

Estimates for repairs as a result of the 2018 structural survey of the Surfside condo cost more than $9 million. Permits dating back to April 2021 show some of those repairs were underway when the building collapsed.

About the Author:

Crystal Moyer is a morning news anchor who joined the News 6 team in 2020.