Surfside Condo collapse: Had the building been sinking into the sand?

The building in Surfside, Florida, that partially collapsed on Thursday at one time was sinking into the sand it was built on, a researcher at Florida International University said Thursday.

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The nearly 40-year-old building had been sinking into what is essentially reclaimed wetlands, according to Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at FIU.

The building collapsed around 1:30 a.m. Thursday. Officials have confirmed four deaths. At least 159 people believed to have been in the building when it collapsed remain unaccounted for.

Officials say that it is too early to speculate on what may have caused part of the building to shear off.

Wdowinski’s study claims that the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside was sinking into the area it was built on at a rate of about 2 millimeters a year during a period in the 1990s.

The data, collected from 1993 to 1999, showed that most of the area was not sinking at an appreciable rate, but the area near the condo complex was a bit different. Wdowinski published the results of the study in 2020.

According to a story from USA Today, when Wdowinski heard of the collapse of the building he remembered it from the study, he said.

“I looked at it this morning and said, ‘Oh my god.’ We did detect that,” Wdowinski said Thursday.

The study focused on flooding hazards in the Miami Beach area, not any concerns with the structural integrity of the buildings.

“We didn’t give it too much importance,” Wdowinski said.

Wdowinski, who studies natural hazards, sea level rise and space geodesy — or the branch of mathematics dealing with the shape and area of the earth — said he is not claiming that the collapse was caused by the building sinking, only that such sinking can have an impact on a building.

“When we measure subsidence or when we see movement of the buildings, it’s worth checking why it happens,” Wdowinski told FIU News. “We cannot say what is the reason for that (the building’s collapse) from the satellite images but we can say there was movement here.”

Gary Slossberg, founder of the South Florida construction company National Home Building & Remodeling Corp, told Fox News that while he did not have any specifics on the cause of the collapse, he said there are several reasons the building could have fallen.

“In a general way, there are many things that could happen. Construction defects or engineering defects,” Slossberg said. “I think there is some value, and it makes some sense to do periodic inspections.”

According to town officials, an inspection of the building’s electrical and structural soundness was underway.

Miami-Dade County requires that commercial and multi-family buildings undergo such inspections every 40 years.

The Champlain Towers South Condos is located at 8777 Collins Avenue in Surfside, Florida. The complex was built in 1981, and has more than 130 units.

A 4500-square-foot penthouse in the complex sold for $2.88 million in May. A three-bedroom, 1748-square-foot condo sold for $710,000 last week.

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