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Surfside Official Told Residents Their Building Was Safe, Despite Engineer's Warning

Rescue workers search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condominium on Saturday in the Surfside area of Miami. The building partially collapsed on Thursday.
Lynne Sladky
Rescue workers search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condominium on Saturday in the Surfside area of Miami. The building partially collapsed on Thursday.

Just one month after an engineering report warned of "major structural damage" that required immediate repair, a Surfside, Fla., official assured residents of Champlain Towers South that their building was sound.

NPR has obtained minutes of a Nov. 2018 meeting that shows a Surfside town inspector met with residents of the building, and assured them the building was "in very good shape." NPR learned of the meeting from a resident who was in attendance and who in an interview with Weekend Edition recalled being told that the building was not in danger.

The inspector's comments directly conflicted with an engineering report from five weeks earlier, which warned that failed waterproofing in a concrete structural slab needed to be replaced "in the near future."

The cause of the building collapse remains unknown, but according to the report, the structural slab was deteriorating because it was flat instead of sloped. That meant the water didn't drain off the concrete's waterproofing quickly, but rather pooled there until it evaporated.

Failure to complete the "extremely expensive" repairs, the nine-page report from Morabito Consultants cautioned, would "cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially."

The 12-story condominium in Surfside partially collapsed early Thursday morning. Nine people are now confirmed dead and over 150 others are missing. Rescue crews continue to comb through the rubble, but officials say they haven't detected any signs of life.

Residents were given a reassurance

The engineering report was dated Oct. 8, 2018. At a Nov. 15 board meeting of the Champlain Tower South Condominium Association, a building official from the town of Surfside, Ross Prieto, appeared to discuss that report. "Structural engineer report was reviewed by Mr. Prieto," the meeting minutes say. "It appears the building is in very good shape."

According to town officials, Prieto is no longer employed by Surfside. NPR attempted repeatedly to reach him, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

The minutes from the meeting appear to conflict with comments made by the current mayor of Surfside, Charles Burkett, who said Saturday that the report was likely not read at the time. Burkett was not mayor in 2018, but told reporters the town did in fact have the report on file.

Miami-Dade County mayor Daniella Levine Cava also told reporters Saturday that officials "knew nothing" about the report.

Surfside officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

A Surfside resident recalled being at the meeting

Speaking to NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition, Champlain Towers South resident Susana Alvarez says she was at the Nov. 2018 meeting, and said residents were told the building was safe.

"We sat there with the town of Surfside," Alvarez said. "And the town of Surfside said to us that the building was not in bad shape, that the building was not in bad shape. That is what they said, okay?

"The structural engineer has been around for a while," Alvarez added. "We took out $15 million to fix that building at his say so. No one ever, ever, ever told us that that building was in such bad shape. No one. No one."

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Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.