Danny Rivero was one of the first reporters on the scene of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in the town of Surfside, Florida, not too far from Miami Beach. He’s been there almost every day since, chronicling what is still, technically, a search and rescue mission. The death toll now stands at 12, but 149 people are still unaccounted-for. And Rivero says the initial shock of the event is “starting to wear off,” turning to grief—and anger. “This didn’t happen for no reason,” he says. “Even though it came out of nowhere, in a sense, it did not come out of nowhere. There were reasons behind why this happened.”
On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Rivero, a reporter for the local public radio station WLRN, about the decisions that led up to the disaster, the role of climate change, and what it all means for the state of Florida. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: An important thing to know about Champlain Towers South is that it’s a condominium. Different people own individual units, and when repairs need to be made to the building as a whole, they’ve got to find a way to pay for them collectively. They elect a board to manage these kinds of decisions. All the way back in 2018, the condo board retained an inspector who assessed the stability of the tower. He found a “major error” in the integrity of the bottom floor of the building. Residents were informed of the problem but spent years negotiating how and whether to fix millions of dollars of damage.
Danny Rivero: There were structural deficiencies identified that probably went back all the way to the construction of this building. And a lot of it has to do just with the fact that the pool deck was built flat, which is a huge no-no. I mean, even me, as a non-construction person, knows you don’t build flat.
You don’t build flat because water accumulates on flat, and then it will seep down and cause structural damage. At least in Florida, you don’t build a flat roof. You build a sloped roof so that if it rains, it doesn’t pool on your roof and cause leaking. But what this engineer report found is that going back to the very beginning of this building basically, they built a concrete slab that was flat for the pool deck. And what that meant over years and decades is that water, as it accumulated from rain or from storm surges, which happen every once in a while, it was seeping down into that and causing changes at the geologic level. This was accumulating under there and causing issues on the pillars that the building stands on, that the whole property stands on.
Do we know if residents in the building fought the repairs, said, “Maybe this isn’t necessary”?
We do know, actually. USA Today had a fantastic story out on Monday evening—heartbreaking story too, though, because it really documents, over the course of the last couple years, the condo board had been pushing for residents to get on board for these repairs. And they couldn’t get people on the same page. And the longer they pushed it back, the higher the costs got, because the repairs—it accelerates if you don’t address it. And because it needed to be this collectivized kind of decision, they couldn’t reach that kind of decision and they couldn’t make the repairs that needed to be done.
This was in addition to the fact that just having a building on the beach means it’s subject to harsh conditions because you have all the saltwater and salt air.
Right. We do know that properties that are right on the beach get more corrosion from the salt that comes from the salty air, from the saltwater that intrudes every once in a while from just harsh winds and hurricanes. But at the same time, this is a structural issue that, like I said, likely goes back to the very building of this building. And there is also the inability of the condo board to get residents on board for paying for these repairs.
The funny thing about this 2018 report is that my understanding is that it wasn’t required. The condo board decided to do it, and then they got this information back. It’s kind of like careful what you wish for, because the engineer is basically like, “You need to shore up the entire building,” and then the question becomes who’s going to pay for all that.
This is what the longer-term story here is. You know, it’s not just about one building collapse and the tragedy, although of course it is. But this is going to force a wholesale reevaluation of how these things are handled, at least in the state of Florida.
Think of condo associations as like small-scale socialism. You all have ownership stock in this thing. You make decisions about it. You have the board, which is kind of like the Politburo. No, really, it is socialism. And the thing about socialism is that when you collectively own something, you collectively make a decision about it. Well, some of those decisions are going to be very hard.
And the board is elected. So if you’re trying to keep your seat, you don’t want to be making that expensive decision and you might avoid it.
Exactly. And the big long-term story we’re going to be dealing with here in Florida is, should boards be given as long a leash as they are given by the state of Florida? They have so much leeway to do what they want and so little oversight by the state or government at any level. At any level. They’re really up to their own devices.
Crises bring reevaluations of things, and I think now people are openly asking, should condo boards be doing all this when there is kind of an inherent conflict of interest? You know, even if you’re elected, you’re likely an owner in that condo. You could be putting yourself on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit in repairs.
My understanding is that the city came in, the city of Surfside, to kind of evaluate the engineer’s report and give an assessment to the condo board and give their opinion. And when they did that, they kind of said this damage isn’t that big of a deal, and that might have contributed to the delay. So I agree with you that people have different incentives, but do you think the city itself is going to end up bearing any responsibility for what happened here?
I do think that is going to come into effect at some point. I mean, I don’t know who to point the finger at, we’ll see, but clearly the city had a role in all of this too. And if they weren’t relaying that information with the gravity that they should have been relaying that information to the residents, then that’s an issue. If they were downplaying it, that’s going to be an issue. There are things coming out, but we still don’t have the full, full picture quite yet.
But the county government has launched emergency audits streamlined within 30 days of any building in the unincorporated county over 40 years old and five stories up. And the city of Miami is doing their own emergency audits, city of Miami Beach is doing their own things, a couple other municipalities. So the governments are reacting to this because there is a lot of fear happening, because nobody wants their building to be part two. They’re trying to really identify what are the buildings that are most in crisis right now that need to be addressed immediately to stop something like this from happening again.
Earlier this week, pictures came out of water damage at the Champlain Towers. They were taken just a couple of days before the collapse occurred, by a pool maintenance guy who came and was looking at some of the issues you raised about the flatness of the pool deck and the fact that water was seeping down. Clearly the guy was concerned. He said there was standing water that had seeped all the way down to the parking lot. And you just wonder, what if it had been addressed earlier?
It’s the big what-if, and that is what’s causing a panic locally, because there is a shit ton of condo buildings here. And you can’t put off these repairs that need to happen. Part of the reason people buy condos is because they’re cheaper. And as soon as you start throwing in “Well, you need to pay $25,000 into this repair,” that scares the crap out of people. So people have been putting it off.
I can’t overstate how big this wrench that this is throwing into our local and regional and state economy, actually. Condos and the development of condos and the mortgage brokers that help get the financing, the insurers that insure, the realtors who sell, the investors who buy and flip—if Florida has one main driver of industry, this is it. That is what we do. That is the story of Florida. And I think we’re seeing a lot of anxiety about this. This is going to force a wholesale reevaluation of the very places where millions of Floridians live.
So you’re really talking about a situation that seems a little bit intractable, where damage is normal in some ways for these buildings because they’re subject to such harsh conditions. There are inspections, but it takes a while for the condo boards to respond some of the time because of the incentives either way. I want to add one more thing to the mix: Can climate change potentially make some of these structural changes worse?
That is the open question, especially for these buildings that really sit on the coast. I don’t want to generalize too much, but we do know that buildings right on the coast that get repetitive flooding—like, this area of Surfside does get high storm surge, and they have sunny day flooding, they call it. Surfside is actually the only city, to my knowledge, in the entire United States that actually has a government fund set up for relocation because of climate change. Their government has been actually very proactive about climate change, especially over the last couple years. It’s a small town, but they have actually opened up an account where they’re taking some amount of dollars to put into this pot so that down the road, when Surfside becomes uninhabitable, they can actually help move people out of Surfside. So I don’t want to say I’m drawing a direct line between this and climate change. I will say it’s almost certainly one of the contributing factors.
How long do you think you’re going to be reporting on this story?
We’ll probably be on this for the next couple years, just because they’re still sorting through the rubble right now, but there’s all these audits going on about these unsafe structures or potentially unsafe structures in Miami-Dade County—what are the results of all those? We already have a shortage of inspectors and construction workers here. All these buildings that have been putting off repairs for a long time—what happens when they all decide at the same time that they want to do work on that? The tentacles of this thing I foresee going extremely deep into everything in the state of Florida.
And I mentioned earlier that condo building is our state’s industry. I literally mean that. The state of Florida was basically considered a wasteland until developers figured out that they could sell the dream of Florida. I’m not exaggerating on this. Our economy over history has basically been a pyramid scheme of developers and people marketing the dream of Florida, to come down to Florida, it’s so beautiful, it’s so carefree. Well, now we have something to care about. This is a serious thing that this tragedy has brought to the forefront, and I think we’re going to be dealing with it for a very long time.
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