Florida Building That Partially Collapsed Showed Signs of Sinking as Early as the 1990s, Researcher Says

An exterior image of Champlain Towers partial building collapse.
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Although it may be a contributing factor, FIU professor Shimon Wdowinski stressed that the sinking alone would likely not cause the condominium to collapse.

Many are questioning how a high-rise condominium that has withstood storms and hurricane gale force winds for decades could come crashing down with no warning.

Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at Florida International University’s Institute of Environment, told USA Today that the building had been sinking into the Earth since the 1990s at a rate of about two millimeters a year.

The 2020 study Wdowinski conducted focused on areas in Miami that were sinking, highlighting those areas that could be most impacted by sea-level rise and coastal flooding. 

"Either the building is settling into the soil or maybe there is some compromise with the structure, a compromise within the building. We cannot really say," he told Reuters. "I was very surprised because I didn't expect that.:

He said there is not sufficient data to show whether the movement continued since then, but did say that although it may be a contributing factor, the sinking alone would likely not cause the condominium to collapse, according to CNN.

Wdowiniski told USA Today that his research was not meant to suggest certainty about what caused the collapse. 

According to USA Today, “Wdownski said he doesn’t believe anybody in the city or state government would have had a reason to be aware of the findings of the study. The bulk of it focused on potential flooding hazards, not engineering concerns. The study’s mention of the “12-story condominium” was relegated to a single line. “We didn’t give it too much importance,” Wdowinski told the outlet. 

The cause of the collapse is still unknown. The building was built in 1981, according to online Miami-Dade property records. After the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, building standards had been strengthened, according to CNN.

As search and rescue teams work at the scene, many are concerned something like this could happen again.

“I know that they are going to have engineers looking at this to try and identify what happened and what was the problematic occurrence,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference. 

The 136-unit building had 55 units that were destroyed in the collapse. 

Surfside requires buildings to be recertified every 40 years. The Surfside Town Commissioner, Charles Kesl, told GMA that there had been engineers all over that building to validate that they would be OK for the 40-year recertification.

“How something of this magnitude, which somehow is structural, could have been missed that much scrutiny, is shocking to me and a complete mystery,” Kesl said.

Kenneth Direktor, an attorney that represents the Champlain Towers South residents, said the building had "thorough engineering inspections over the last several months" in preparation for compliance with the 40-year certification, CNN reported. 

"What that tells you is.... nothing like this was foreseeable, at least it wasn't seen by the engineers who were looking at the building from a structural perspective," Direktor told CNN.

The group had been preparing to make updates and already submitted plans to the city but the only work that started was construction on the roof, ABC News reported.

"Nothing like this has ever been seen, at least not in the 40 years I've been doing this," Direktor told ABC.

Late Thursday night, Manuel Drezner, a resident of the building, filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit against the condominium, Reuters reported.

Drezner said the condominium should pay the unit owners millions of dollars for their "unfathomable loss."

He proposed in the proposed class action that the building's collapse could have been avoided had the condominium made needed repairs and ensured it was safe. 

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