Recently, the nation watched as Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava stepped up to a microphone in Surfside and announced that the desperate search for survivors in the rubble of the Champlain Tower South condominiums was over, two weeks after the building calamitously collapsed.
“I could not be prouder of our extraordinary team … who have given this search everything they have,” she said, describing how local emergency workers and volunteers from across Florida and the nation worked in dangerous conditions and pouring rain, searching through collapsed concrete and rebar, uncovering shattered and torn personal possessions of residents.
Now, she said, it was time to accept reality. Instead of searching for live victims, they are searching for remains. It was a heartbreaking moment from a woman who spoke movingly of hope and faith just a few days prior.
Florida should never have to endure two weeks like the ones that just passed. The thousands of Floridians who live in high-rise condominiums should never have to fear that one day, their homes will fall away from beneath their feet.
Nobody in Champlain Towers had a chance to try to protect themselves. Within 19 seconds, half the units in the South Tower had been destroyed.
State leaders have a lot of work before them, and it can’t wait until the regular legislative session in the spring. By that time, the grief and horror of the Champlain Tower South collapse will have started to fade — and infighting will have begun among various factions seeking to warp the process of reform for their own political gain.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis must prepare to take action within the next few weeks. And they won’t have to look hard for needed reforms; over the past two weeks many gaping holes in the state’s safety net have come to light. That’s where lawmakers should start.
• Evaluate condos for signs of trouble. Miami-Dade and Broward are the only two counties that require routine inspection of older condominiums. In the wake of the Champlain collapse, many county leaders are probably considering their own local ordinances. But Florida needs statewide standards that include regular inspections, and ways to ensure that needed repairs are made before tragedy strikes again. Statewide safety efforts could work through county and city governments — which already have building inspection departments — or the state can proceed on its own. But every condo-dweller in Florida deserves to know their homes are safe.
• Streamline the inspection process and prioritize action for buildings that are most likely to be unsound. Champlain Towers, built in 1981, was already going through its inspection — an engineer had found serious structural defects and management was planning on $15 million in repairs. But managers had known there were problems since 2018. Lawmakers should write timelines into state law that accelerate structural reviews and repairs, and set clear guidelines for condominium managers. And the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation should immediately start tracking common elements shared by buildings found to be structurally flawed.
• Tighten rules that govern the directors of condominium associations, setting clear, non-negotiable requirements to keep up with maintenance and maintain adequate reserves. Some will see this as an overly harsh crackdown on association board members, almost all of whom are volunteers. But right now, boards have too much leeway to defer needed maintenance and skimp on reserves — and they may be easily swayed by the fear of increasing financial burdens for themselves or their neighbors. Spelling out the rules clearly will give those board members the backstop they need to insist on fiscally sound management.
Providing this oversight will also increase the pressure on the DBPR division that oversees condominiums. That office is supposed to be supported by an annual $4 assessment on condominium units — but lawmakers routinely pilfer from that trust fund. This year, they skimmed $5 million to use for other priorities. That should be restored, and lawmakers should keep hands off in the future.
These reforms are simple and obvious — but they’ll require strong political will and a sense of urgency to accomplish. As Mayor Cava so eloquently said, “We have all asked God for a miracle.” Let’s see if Florida’s lesser deities can deliver.
— Daytona Beach News-Journal