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Despite Warnings, City Demanded Only Minor Changes To Condominium Site

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One week ago today, a 12-story condominium in Surfside, Fla., collapsed. Eighteen people have now been confirmed dead; 145 others are still missing. NPR is learning new details about the deteriorating condition of the building and who was raising red flags.

NPR's Brian Mann is part of our team examining a trove of documents from the town of Surfside and the condo association board. Brian, good morning. Thanks for being here.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What have you been learning?

MANN: This is interesting. You know, right after this building collapsed, town officials suggested that it hadn't really been on their radar. But what NPR has learned is that it was. This condo was closely scrutinized, inspected and monitored by government officials in the months before it collapsed. But those building inspectors never demanded serious repairs. In fact, documents obtained by NPR show little sign of urgency even as warnings about the condo's safety continued to grow. This building first began to get attention as early as 2018. That's when building officials were given that troubling engineering report that showed real structural concerns. And that probe continued. They continued to inspect this building month by month through - up until the collapse. And they found serious problems. This review almost worked, but there was very little follow-through.

MARTIN: So for at least three years, people lived in a building that was compromised. I mean, why wasn't there more urgency?

MANN: We don't know why town officials responded this way. They've declined to answer questions so far about the process. They say this isn't the time, while the search is underway. They have pledged transparency. What we do know is the town kept ordering managers of the condo to do relatively minor things, like repairing gates and replacing paving stones. What's missing is any sense of urgency about the building's bigger problems, those concrete and steel foundations that were decaying. We obtained pictures yesterday of some of those problems taken in 2020. They show crumbling concrete and rusting beams. These were things that structural engineers were seriously concerned about.

MARTIN: What about the condo association board, Brian? What were they doing about these problems in the last few years?

MANN: Yeah. Its members were well aware of these problems, again, beginning in 2018. But as this went forward, we found documents showing that many on the condo association's board, while they were worried about the condition, they were also worried about the cost - up to $16 million. We found memos where they were talking just in the last couple of months about the desperate needs of the building. But there was this turmoil. A majority of the condo association's board, five members, quit in one month. This was in 2019. The minutes we obtained from the following board meeting show a lot of anger and frustration that seems to have slowed progress.

MARTIN: Hmm. You have learned that the new board president had been pressing ahead to make the repairs, though, right?

MANN: Yeah. Even with those disagreements, condo owners had been asked to pay upwards of $100,000 each to fund these structural repairs. We found a letter sent to residents from earlier this year from condo president Jean Wodnicki. And she said this government recertification process required for older buildings was pressing them to finally get this work done. In that letter, sent around April, she said inspections conducted as part of the government-mandated review had turned up issues that she described - and I'm quoting here - as "life and safety issues."

We've tried reaching out to many of the current and former board members in these documents to ask more questions. We haven't been successful so far. Several of them are among the missing.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann.

Brian, thank you.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.