Florida Can Prevent Another Surfside Building Collapse Tragedy if Governor DeSantis Convenes Expert Task Force for Statewide Safety Standards

    Some might say it’s too soon. Too soon to talk politics and policy, when the search, rescue and recovery operations at the Surfside Champlain Towers South condominium collapse disaster are still tragically unfolding before our eyes.

But this is exactly the time to discuss what we can do to guarantee this kind of disaster never happens again – when the unbearable grief is hardest to see, when the potential death toll is the hardest to comprehend.

   Let’s be clear: 40-year-old buildings in the United States should never simply collapse. Period.

   And we shouldn’t wait another moment before finding and embracing commonsense policies that make sure that is true.Condo Safety Inspections

   In Florida, where our edifices are under constant attack – from salt, sand, water, storms, lightning, winds, surge, and more – the most important next step we can take is to make sure the same standards are being met in every community.

   In that spirit, we have urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to immediately establish a statewide task force of industry experts to determine the highest and best standards and other policies to improve the safety of Florida’s high-rise buildings. That task force could begin work now, so that its findings and recommendations help guide Gov. DeSantis and the Legislature in enacting new state laws.

   For those of us who have lived in Florida for many years, this approach feels familiar. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, Florida adopted a uniform statewide Florida Building Code. The code mandated new buildings must be able to withstand hurricane-force winds and have storm shutters or storm-resistant windows.

But what about older structures?

   Requirements governing the frequency and thoroughness of inspections vary widely among Florida’s 67 counties and more than 400 cities and towns. Local governments often loudly resist legislation that takes away their authority by imposing statewide standards – but for safety issues like this one, such preemption is wholly appropriate.

   We inspect the elevators inside these buildings every year – so shouldn’t we regularly assess the safety of the buildings themselves?

   In the meantime, condo boards and associations must also step up. Owners’ dues should ensure buildings and grounds are properly maintained, making safety a priority. But the responsibility shouldn’t fall on the dedicated volunteer board members themselves – because the work of inspecting buildings requires significant professional expertise.

   We have advised condominium and homeowners’ association boards on a range of issues for the past 35 years, and we recognize that board members are often concerned about potential legal exposure. The most direct way to reduce that exposure is to make sure appropriate steps are being taken to maintain the buildings -- and the health and safety of the people in them. And the best way to do that is to have a fiscal plan to use dues and other revenue for necessary repairs and maintenance.

   Through consistent state standards and responsible policy-making at the association level, we can take great strides to guarantee that the Surfside tragedy remains a horrific aberration. The best way to honor the victims and their families is to take the steps necessary to make sure this never happens again. 

After all, the issue here isn’t what new regulations will cost; it is about what they will save – lives.

God bless the Surfside victims and their families.

Peter S. Sachs
Louis Caplan

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Peter S. Sachs and Louis Caplan are founding partners of Sachs Sax Caplan, P.L., one of the nation's most experienced and respected law firms in the area of condominium law. The Boca Raton-based firm’s pioneering work in condominium and community association law has led to landmark changes that have shaped Florida community association law and established the firm as one of the foremost authorities in the field.

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