Anxious Residents of Sister Tower to Fallen Florida Condo Wonder: Stay or Go?

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The partly collapsed Champlain Towers South scared people who live in Champlain Towers North. But no one has ordered them to evacuate — yet.

The Champlain Towers North, center, among other high rise condominiums in Surfside, Fla. The mayor of Surfside said there are roughly 20 buildings with 12 stories that overlook the ocean in his town.
Credit...Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

June 26, 2021, 3:55 p.m. ET

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Philip Zyne peered over the balcony of his condo near Miami Beach around midday on Saturday and pointed to a large crack running in the parking lot below his unit.

Normally, he might not have given it a moment’s thought. But Mr. Zyne, 71, lives at Champlain Towers North, the sister condo complex to the building in Surfside, Fla., that partially collapsed into a mass of rubble on Thursday, leaving four people dead and 159 missing. Now he was on high alert: Could the building where he lives be next?

“I would’ve never noticed that if this hadn’t happened,” Mr. Zyne said.

It is a question on the minds of many South Floridians, especially those in older, beachfront buildings that are faced day in and day out with similar outside conditions as the Champlain Towers South: salty air, rising seas, aging concrete.

On Saturday, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County announced a 30-day audit of all buildings 40 years and older under the county’s jurisdiction, which includes Miami and neighboring towns, like Surfside, where the building fell. Mayor Charles W. Burkett of Surfside said he was considering asking residents of Champlain Towers North to voluntarily evacuate as a precaution until their building, which has had no reports of serious problems, could be thoroughly inspected.

From the outside, Champlain Towers North, at 8877 Collins Ave., seems identical to Champlain Towers South — same developer and same design, built just one year apart. Most terrifying for Mr. Zyne is that his unit is in the same part of the building as the apartments that crumbled in the South complex, those facing the pool and the Atlantic.

“It’s scary,” said Bud Thomas, 55, his neighbor upstairs, as he also looked out on Saturday. “I’m hoping that this one doesn’t have the same structural problems as the other one.”

Members of the condominium board, who are longtime Champlain Towers North residents, said in interviews on Saturday that they are confident their building is in far better shape than the South building was, as a result of prompt and continuous maintenance.

But that has not reassured some of their residents, some of whom hastily packed bags and found other places to sleep for at least a few days in the immediate aftermath of the nearby disaster.

The Zynes left their apartment to stay with their daughter but came back on Saturday. They recalled being awakened in the early hours of Thursday by an alarm signaling that the lights had gone out in their condominium. It was only later that they realized the lights had gone out at about the same time that the nearby building had collapsed.

Nora Zyne, 69, lost three friends who remained unaccounted for.

“I feel extremely saddened — I’ve known them for 30 years,” she said. “We were all so close. I felt a sense of — can you imagine being at home in the safest place, you’re sleeping and that horrific —” Her thought trailed off. “I pray that they were asleep and don’t know what happened. You lost people you shared your life with. I can’t understand how something like that could happen.”

On Saturday, a family of four left the building carrying their belongings and grocery bags en route to a nearby hotel. “We just want to move out, just for safety,” said one member of the family, who declined to be identified.

The atmosphere in the building lobby was somewhat tense as some residents who had heard about a possible evacuation tried to press condo board members for more information.

“It is better to stay safe until the whole inspection is done,” said another resident, who gave only her first name, Asya, because she was worried about all the attention the building was getting.

Minutes from a November condo board meeting obtained by The New York Times showed that some maintenance work was underway in hallways, which have been stripped of their baseboards and in some cases remained covered in plastic. The board also discussed a concern about planters near the pool that were leaking into the parking garage below, a problem similar to one of the most serious deficiencies identified in a 2018 engineer’s report about what was causing rebar to rust and concrete to crumble in the South towers.

Champlain Towers North was built in 1982, a year after Champlain Towers South. Its mandatory 40-year building recertification is due next year. Naum Lusky, the president of the condo board, said the association had begun to work with inspectors ahead of that date but now would accelerate efforts in light of the South tragedy.

He emphasized that the board in that building has addressed aging building problems as they have come up in order to avoid the kind of major repairs that had been identified as necessary in the South building before half of it came down.

“This building is spick and span,” he said. “There is no comparison.”

In a show of his confidence, Mr. Lusky, 81, who has lived in the North towers for 22 years, stayed in the building after the neighboring collapse.

Last year, the building inspected all balconies to look for water leaks and fix them. Work on the pool deck was completed about six months ago, said Hilda Gandelman, another condo board member. That work addressed the leaky planters, according to Mr. Lusky. The building manager declined to be interviewed.

Ms. Gandelman said she knows three of the people missing in the South towers. She said her friends from that condo would come visit and note that the North complex was in better shape.

“They used to come to this building and they used to say, ‘Oh my goodness, this building is so well-kept,’” she said. “‘In our building they have to ask for so many special assessments,’” her neighbors told her, she said.

John Pistorino, a Miami structural engineer, said that the collapse of the South towers did not necessarily mean that the North towers — or any other buildings in the area — were at particular risk of collapse.

“This collapse is so unusual, I don’t think this is indicative of all the buildings we have up and down the coast,” he said. But he added that the collapse was “certainly a warning to do due diligence on all the buildings, including that particular one,” to make sure that the buildings have been well maintained.

It was difficult not to worry about a 39-year-old building so similar to a 40-year-old building that fell in such stunning fashion. Mr. Burkett, the Surfside mayor, said beachfront residents from across his small town have called him, nervous.

“Are the buildings on the ocean safe?” they asked him.

What to do took over part of a special meeting of the Town Council on Friday. After consulting with other officials, including Ms. Levine Cava, Mr. Burkett said on Saturday that a voluntary evacuation might be a good idea. He planned to approach the condo board, which has scheduled a meeting for Sunday morning.

“We would rather not make it mandatory,” he said. “If there are people in that building who are comfortable staying here, it seems to me the chances are low that we’d have the same exact problem with that building. But personally I would not want to take that chance.”

Sophie Kasakove contributed reporting and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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