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Multiple Probes Underway As Rescue Efforts Continue At Site Of Condominium Collapse

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Surfside, Fla., after the condo collapse, there are still scores of missing and only nine people confirmed dead. While the families wait in anguish, multiple probes are underway into why the building fell down. Now we have some exclusive new information. A resident tells NPR that despite what city officials claim, at least one official knew about a 2018 engineering report that raised alarms about the building's safety. NPR's Brian Mann investigated.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The report was commissioned by the condominium's residents association in 2018 as part of an inspection process required for older buildings 40 years after their construction. The consultant study warned of major structural damage and identified serious design flaws in the building's original construction. Government officials here, including Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, said yesterday, they were unaware of the consultant's warning.

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DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: No, we knew nothing about this report. No, we did not know about this report.

MANN: Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, who wasn't in office in 2018, also said he was unaware of the study and saw it for the first time after the building collapsed. But NPR has learned that at least one government official from Surfside, a building inspector, did review the report, according to minutes of a meeting held by the condominium association in November of 2018. The town inspector met with residents and assured them the building was, quote, "in very good shape." Susana Alvarez lived in one of the building's apartments and survived Thursday's disaster. She said she was present for that session, and it put her mind at ease.

SUSANA ALVAREZ: I left that meeting very calm because the building officials said the building was in very good shape.

MANN: Alvarez said she knew her building had significant maintenance problems. She said there was repeated flooding in the parking garage underneath the apartments. Experts say standing water can weaken concrete and steel supports, leading to stability problems. But Alvarez said no one warned her of any danger.

ALVAREZ: At no point, at no point ever in the 10 years that I'd lived there was I ever concerned the building was going to fall - OK? - or collapse ever. It never even crossed my mind.

MANN: But Morabito Consultants, the engineering group that produced the 2018 study, issued a statement yesterday, confirming they found significant issues which, quote, "required repairs to ensure the safety of the residents." It's unclear why town officials didn't require more immediate repairs. NPR tried unsuccessfully to reach the building inspector who reviewed the report. That individual no longer works for the town. Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul said she now believes the inspection and review process for buildings throughout Dade County is not rigorous enough.

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TINA PAUL: That's one of the things that really has to change, is how do we evaluate these buildings? They're on the ocean. We need to know what's going on underneath the buildings.

MANN: Other officials here are asking similar questions.

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RON DESANTIS: We need a definitive explanation for how this could have happened.

MANN: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, speaking in Surfside, said families want answers why this building fell, but so do other residents living up and down the coast in older buildings similar to this one.

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DESANTIS: There's a lot of other people throughout this community and really throughout Florida who want to know, well, how can a building just collapse like that?

MANN: Miami-Dade County officials say they have begun a 30-day emergency push to audit older buildings to make sure they're safe. It's important to note, the engineering study performed in 2018 may not have identified any of the structural issues that led to this disaster. Outside experts interviewed by NPR said that report clearly raised important red flags that warranted further inspection and expensive repairs. But Stephanie Walkup, an engineer who specializes in structural collapses at Villanova University, said the painstaking probes now beginning in Surfside could find an entirely different triggering event.

STEPHANIE WALKUP: I'm sure there are many hypotheses right now, but until the data actually demonstrates that that, yes, could cause a collapse, which would then in turn cause a progressive collapse of the structure, I think you're probably at least four to six months out and maybe longer.

MANN: State and local officials urged patience for these investigations. They say they're still focused on the search and rescue effort and on recovering remains of victims. Meanwhile, yesterday, the federal agency that helped probe the 9/11 Twin Towers collapse in New York City announced it's sending a team of scientists and engineers to help with this investigation. Brian Mann, NPR News, Surfside, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.