Journalist/developer. Storytelling developer @ USA Today Network. Builder of @HomicideWatch. Sinophile for fun. Past: @frontlinepbs @WBUR, @NPR, @NewsHour.
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Marcella Hazan: Italian Cooking with a Master : NPR

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NPR's Scott Simon visits the French Cullinary Institute in Manhattan where noted Italian chef, Marcella Hazan, teaches a Master Class in Italian cooking. Hazan's new cookbook is called Marcella Says: Italian Cooking from the Legendary Teacher's Master Classes.

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chrisamico
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The Question the I.O.C. Is Too Weak to Ask

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Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai went missing after publicly accusing a former government official of sexual assault. Tennis stars, led by Naomi Osaka, and the WTA have all asked #whereispengshuai?

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chrisamico
9 days ago
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Why I Got a Covid Vaccine for My Six-Year-Old Son

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I am in a CVS, and I am a complete mess.

The sound of Aretha Franklin and George Michael singing “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” welcome us, their voices tinny over the loudspeakers. It is an unusually sunny and warm November Monday in Chicago, so my wife and I and our six-year-old son are left blinking in the florescent light. Aretha punctuates the opening line: “Like a warrior that fights…” The perfect song for this occasion, during which I break down in the pharmacy aisle, laughing and crying at the same time. Tears of joy and tears of anguish, but mostly tears of exhausted relief, in front of a row of antihistamines, George and Aretha grinding their way through the ‘80s super hit. “I knew you were waiting. I knew you were waiting for me.”

This moment—right here, in this poorly lit CVS—is one we’ve been waiting for since March 2020: the day the youngest member of our family can finally get vaccinated.

I secured the appointment for our six-year-old six days earlier in the dead of night, which felt like a dream, the house dark and quiet. As I clicked the "schedule" button on the big-box pharmacy website, I wept. Once everyone was awake, it was a party. My wife and I and our six-year-old son danced around the house, singing and laughing in a way that hasn't happened since the house became the only real place we went.

It was the release of a burden you’d grown so accustomed to carrying around that you’d forgotten how much it weighed on you until it was gone.

It's been 20 months since we went inside. Twenty months since our youngest child was last in school. He spent his kindergarten year on Zoom, misery from start to finish. First grade began at home as well. With no remote option this time, my wife and I agonized over the decision of whether to send him back. Ultimately, we decided to hold off until there was a vax, shrinking what had become small lives even smaller. My wife and I split school duties down the middle—me on the morning shift, her the afternoon. It was an impossible decision. To this day I couldn't tell you it was the right one, in part because "right" and "wrong" have been defined and redefined so many times in the last 20 months as to be nearly unknowable.

While we agonized over school, we didn’t with the vax: it was an easy and immediate decision. I started refreshing drug store websites the moment the CDC approved the shot. There was no hesitation, no doubt, just refresh-refresh-refresh until it could finally be booked. It was easily the smoothest of all the vax rollouts I've witnessed so far (my wife, a cancer survivor, was among the earlier groups; we waited more than a month for her appointment after trying for weeks to secure it). Suddenly, the world is becoming knowable again.

Of course the pandemic isn’t over. Not yet. Case numbers are on the rise— pointing to potentially another dark winter of grim news reports about overflowing hospitals and rising body counts—mainly because of the millions who still refuse the vaccine. We all pray it won’t be as bad as last year. In the meantime, the usual nutbags and proto-fascists are lining up to make kids vaccinations the latest front in the Culture War. Last week, they took aim at Big Bird—Big Bird!—after the Muppet tweeted that his wing was a little sore because he had just gotten the vaccine. For my son, the Big Bird news was an instant point of pride. He and the Sesame Street icon got their shot at the same time and were each a little sore. He hoped they both felt better soon. For Ted Cruz, the Big Bird news was an easy way to score cheap political points. He called it government propaganda. Now Big Bird is a punching bag for the right in the same manner as masks, lockdowns, and vaccines. Big Bird will be fine—he’s won every culture war he’s been thrust into for 50 years; the rest of us, who even knows anymore. We’re all so tired of the bullshit.

You’re a parent—you do everything you can to make sure your child makes it through intact.

It’s been a long 20 months of keeping our children safe from a virus with no cure and no immunity. Twenty months of staying inside; 20 months of fingers crossed; and yes, 20 brutal months of kids getting sick, of parents and grandparents dying. The vaccine offers the best chance we’ve had since the start of 2020 and somehow there are parents that are hesitant, parents that want to “do their own research,” as if 7.5 billion doses administered around the world isn’t evidence enough that it’s safe and effective. As if parenting isn’t just one long list of vaccinations and shots, prescriptions and midnight rushes to the ER. You’re a parent—you do everything you can to make sure your child makes it through intact. You do everything, including this.

Every part of this 20-month nightmare has been exhausting, but this part was easy. It was easy to find an appointment, easy to show up, easy to get the jab. The hardest part for our six-year-old was finding a toy he wanted among the CVS’s anemic selection.

JOSEPH PREZIOSOGetty Images

“We’re all so excited about the kids” our pharmacist said, beaming behind a mask, his gloved hands enveloping my son’s tiny arm. Our son, usually a champ when it comes to shots, was momentarily nervous, then declared “That’s it?” when the momentary prick was over, confused that with all the buildup there wasn’t more involved. In his own way, he’d been waiting for this moment, too. He’d seen his older brother get the shot this spring, and his parents before that. He’d spent the summer talking about what it would be like when he was vaccinated and, in just an instant, he finally he was. “I thought there’d be more,” he said. The pharmacist laughed.

For his mom and I, we exhaled for the first time in 20 months. It was the release of a burden you’d grown so accustomed to carrying around that you’d forgotten how much it weighed on you until it was gone. And then we cried. Because that’s what you do, sometimes, when you are happy, we explained to our child. It’s also what you do when a complex flood of emotions hits you all at once like a truck slamming into a wall. But we didn’t mention that to him.

For us, the pandemic is changing. The good stuff is now coursing through the veins of everyone in my immediate family: my wife and I, our teenage son, and now, our six-year-old. The same can be said for hundreds of thousands of other parents. This particular burden is lifted. “It feels like a dream,” friends keep saying to me, their Instagram stories filled with pictures of their own children in drug stores and doctors offices, Band-Aids displayed like a badge of honor.

It didn’t feel real until it was. There in the back corner of a CVS, the Band-Aid stretched across our son’s arm, his fear gone entirely. And yet I still have to stop and remind myself that it happened. I hadn’t allowed myself the hope of a vaccination—of a fast review process, easy availability, and ample supply. Every turn in the pandemic has offered enough false hope that I’d simply stopped hoping entirely. But this was different. Aretha and George were waiting for me, there in a poorly lit back corner of a CVS. All of us were waiting for this. All of us were waiting for hope.

Dan Sinker Dan Sinker is a journalist, culture critic, and talks about politics on the "Says Who" podcast.

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chrisamico
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Backwards Ran The Sentences

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A very short post, sparked by a single paragraph.

It was in a NYT story about the debate over language on the left (BIPOC/Latinx/ Microagression/AAPI/LGBTQIA+ and more); the story overall was smart and interesting, but this paragraph was particularly insightful.

Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”

And Mr. Robinson is absolutely right: Words matter, and how we use them matter. Beyond news judgment – itself a whole area we can and should explore – and the framing of stories (ditto), even simple, declarative, uncontroversial factual statements can affect how readers look at a subject.

You might be thinking: Perhaps he’s overstating the importance of this. And it’s true that probably a single use of a phrase or a framing doesn’t have much impact. But cumulatively, small things do build and can change our perceptions of the world. We all have biases, based on how we see categories of things and how experience and culture of them filter into our brains. (This all from The End of Bias, a book I’m deep into now and plan to write about soon.) And words in stories are part of that experience and culture.

This won’t be easy to address. Undoing decades of writing habits is hard.

It would be easier if it wasn’t words. Certainly the graphics and data visualization community has always been sensitive to how information is designed – and writing is a form of information design – and that’s perhaps because that visual grammar is in many ways still evolving; and as a result, everything is up for discovery and debate. Writing, on the other hand, is a much older technology, and so much of it is embedded in us that we often don’t think as much as we should about how the words go on the page (or screen), and certainly not when we’re on deadline. I confess I haven’t thought about what I write the way Mr. Robinson has, and that’s my bad.

So how can we address this? I’m not sure, other than more scrutiny and awareness. But I’m sure that’s not enough.



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chrisamico
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Money laundering evident at collapsed Surfside condo building

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When Champlain Towers South ascended from the beachfront 40 years ago in the quaint Miami suburb of Surfside, the new condominium gleamed with promise.

It was the first swanky high-rise condo in the tiny town, and it solidified the neighborhood as a gathering place for the rich and famous such as Frank Sinatra, who hung out down the road. For its residents – from millionaire cocaine smugglers to family vacationers – it was all about landing their little slice of paradise.   

But even before developers sold off the 136 condominiums to their first owners, the construction had been botched and the building had been set on a course to rot from the foundation up, a USA TODAY investigation shows.   

USA TODAY set out to compile a complete accounting of the forces at work on the building that collapsed June 24, killing 98 people. Reporters pored over thousands of pages of documents, including deeds, inspection records and homeowner association minutes. They interviewed dozens of people, including money laundering and engineering experts and residents who called the building home from its birth in 1981 to its deadly end in 2021.   

The reporting reveals for the first time that early condo sales exhibit telltale signs of a money laundering scheme. Experts said cutting corners on construction often accompanied money laundering. At Champlain South, engineers noted an incorrectly designed pool deck and improperly constructed support columns. Money laundering might have meant that some early buyers weren’t living in the condo building or concerned with its long-term maintenance.   

"The era we’re talking about is when Miami suddenly came out of the ashes. So how do you rush to fulfill the demand? You cut corners. You attached roofs with paper clips. You bribe the inspectors," said Jorge Valdes, who was not involved in Champlain South but helped build dozens of homes, apartment complexes and high-rises in the Miami region as a chief money launderer for the Medellin Cartel. 

The reporting reveals that troubling evidence of the building’s decay emerged earlier and was ignored longer than previously known. Residents noted flooding in the garage in 1981, the year the tower opened.  By 1996, they were making repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling. In 2016, as construction rumbled on a new condo next door, a Champlain South resident was shaken off a treadmill.   

Homeowner association records and interviews with residents show that these problems were addressed in isolation, a series of seemingly small problems that no one connected until 2018, when an engineering report laid out construction errors that investigators are examining to determine if they contributed to the collapse.  

Even when engineers finally alerted residents to design flaws that were causing chronic water intrusion and growing damage to concrete, the arguments and delays over needed repairs did not focus on safety but about the cost and inconvenience of fixing the problems. During the building’s final years, homeowners voted to delay a repair of "deep" concrete deterioration near the pool, so they could keep it open through the summer, a 2020 engineering document shows. It was the first part of the building that caved, witnesses said.  

As building maintenance was deferred and problems continued to crop up, the condo’s luxury designs and high-end finishes became dingy and dilapidated. People looking for top-tier beachfront living in Surfside went to the newer places next door.   

A USA TODAY analysis of 40 years of real estate sales in Surfside tracked the rise and fall of Champlain’s fortunes, from one of the most expensive in the region to a tarnished bargain.  

Champlain South’s biggest sale in 2021 came in May when a couple paid $2.8 million for a four-bedroom penthouse in the 40-year-old building. By contrast, a three-bedroom at the 2-year-old Eighty Seven Park condos next door sold for $9 million, more than three times as much

To understand how the building declined and fell from its inception, "timing is key," said Nicholas Griffin, who wrote a book exploring cocaine, the race riots and refugee crisis in Miami in 1980.

“This is all going on at exactly the time they are putting together the Surfside deal,” Griffin said. “So you can imagine how far down the bottom of the list honest inspections of potential building disasters would be.”   

 He paused.

“Seeds were planted that took 40 years to grow and then collapse.”  

The plot of land where Champlain South once stood grabbed developers’ attention in the earliest days of America’s beachfront condominium boom.  

For most of the 1970s, the entire block that became Champlain South was a fenced-off pit, about 12 feet deep. Developers had bought the 3-star Coronado Hotel, demolished it and announced a 12-story condo to take its place.   

But that project never came to be. Developers couldn’t resolve a fight with Miami-Dade County over sewer system upgrades, according to a Miami Herald article in 1973. Instead, a shack sprouted in the pit, where kids “smoked pot and hung out,” said Ray Lovado, 54, who grew up two blocks from the site.    

The property sold in 1978 and again in 1979, eventually landing in the hands of developer Nathan Reiber and his partner Nathan Goldlist and associates.   

They revived big plans for the spot – plans that made Surfside leaders’ eyes sparkle.    

“It was going to be money in the coffers to keep the tax burden low for the residents,” said Mitchell Kinzer, who was the mayor of Surfside at the time Champlain South was built. Champlain South and its nearly identical twin, Champlain North, ballooned the tax rolls by a reported $35 million in 1982, generating more than enough to cover plans for 5% pay hikes for town employees.   

Reiber faced tax trouble in Canada. His lawyer, Stanley Levine, had been indicted for attempting to bribe an official in Florida on an earlier project; and one building contractor hired to work on the Champlain South project was forced to surrender his license after numerous infractions. The architect’s license had been suspended in Florida after sign structures he designed collapsed during Hurricane Betsy in 1965.  

Reiber, Levine and others who led the building’s development have since died. Attempts to reach their relatives were unsuccessful. 

Thousands of pages of deed and mortgage documents reveal that within 24 months of opening, at least 62 sales exceeding $9.5 million showed classic signs of money laundering. 

To use money from drug sales, cartels have to make sure the cash can’t be tracked back to its illegal source. Purchasing real estate with drug money through an anonymous corporation can do that because proceeds from sales or rentals become a plausibly legitimate source of money that can be safely banked or spent. Mortgage repayments also create a legitimate revenue stream.  

That’s why concealed buyer identities, all-cash sales, hidden sources of private loan money, overpaying for condos and rapid repayment of loans are all considered red flags for money laundering.  

Not all such transactions are illegal. In 1981, money laundering was not a crime. That changed in 1986 with the Money Laundering Control Act, which prohibits engaging in financial transactions using money from certain crimes.  

At Champlain South and North, red flags were commonplace.  Buyers purchased units through shell companies in countries such as Panama and the Netherlands Antilles, both notorious for laundering drug money through anonymous corporations. One buyer was headquartered at the same address as more than 200 other offshore companies, according to the Panama Papers.  Multiple sales involved all cash and overpayments.    

"Shell companies, cash deals, fast sales, strange buyers, tax haven companies as owners, hidden beneficial ownership, all the bells and whistles of suspicious transactions that compliance officers today would recognize in a New York minute,” said Ken Rijock, a Miami financial crime consultant and former banking attorney who laundered money for Colombian cocaine cartels in the 1980s.  

Records show a fund controlled by Reiber’s attorney loaned millions to people buying condos from Reiber and his partner.  

If they took part in money laundering in the sales, experts said, the developers were probably cutting corners on construction and anywhere else they could boost profits. 

“You wanted to put up real estate as quickly as possible because the money was flowing,” said Valdes, the former Medellin money launderer. “We could buy any building inspector at any given moment. There were no stringent codes. There were no money laundering laws.” 

Levine used a trust account with an unidentified source of money to shell out more than $3 million in high-interest loans to early buyers at Champlain South in its first two years and at least $1.4 million to Champlain North, a red flag for money laundering schemes, said Charles Intriago, one of the nation's most trusted chroniclers of the war on money laundering in Miami during the 1980s.    

“If the main players of a building are engaged in corrupt activities, they are more than likely to be involved in corruption in every single phase of it. That includes from the time the person buys it, to the construction, to the completion and the sales of it. There's going to be a temptation to cut corners, and Miami was – and is – fertile ground for this,” the former federal prosecutor said. “That Surfside tower is no exception.”    

Levine’s loan terms could be back-breaking. Interest rates frequently topped even the average 16% charged by banks in 1981. Twelve-month paybacks for six-figure loans were not unusual at Champlain South. But the loans were popular: Even Reiber’s Champlain business partner, Goldlist, borrowed $150,000, records show. 

Another sign of money laundering: At its start, Champlain South commanded top-of-the market prices for condominiums even though condos with more amenities sold for less.    

For instance, in 1980, Triton Tower condominiums advertised everything Champlain offered – and then some: a restaurant and two pools. It was in Miami Beach, a better-known address with more cachet.    

There, the asking price for a penthouse was $121,000; $137,000 for a luxury two-bedroom. At Champlain, a penthouse in 1981 sold for $216,800.     

Despite the inflated price tags, early buyers flocked in from Brooklyn, Denver, New Jersey and Canada, where Reiber and Goldlist had business and personal ties.   

When Marely Fuquen overpaid for her fifth-floor, two-bedroom in 1982, she didn’t just join the ranks of offshore and foreign buyers paying cash for condos. She put the Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel into the heart of Champlain South.    

The mother of four was the mistress of Jose Santacruz Londono, the cartel’s lead money laundering overseer.   

Working from a network of Panamanian banks and corporate shell companies, his Luxembourg-based financial wizards moved money from street drug sales in the USA to Panamanian banks, and from there, to European and Colombian accounts and corporations. 

Fuquen told others she feared for her children if something should happen to her. And something did. 

In 1989, Fuquen disappeared. DEA agents investigating the drug kingpin suspected Santacruz ordered her murder. 

Assessment checks on her Champlain South condo kept arriving until three months after authorities arrested Santacruz’s European money laundering team and froze millions of dollars of his personal fortune. Federal prosecutors filed to seize the Champlain condo unit, part of a broader seizure of cartel assets. 

“When you’re dealing with dirty money, it seeps into the sales. Something’s gotta give, so the prices are inflated. It increases the cost of the unit,” Intriago said. “They gotta make that money back somehow, and it's easy to disguise. Who the hell is gonna know?” 

Rebecca Posner was one of the first to move into Champlain South. Her father bought the condo in 1981, she said, so she would have a place to spend time with her children when they took breaks from their boarding schools in the North.    

Posner liked the condo. She liked her neighbors, “all very friendly,” she recalled. She had only one complaint: From Day One, every time it rained, the garage flooded.     

“We always had to take the cars out,” Posner said.  

From garage floor to penthouse ceiling, construction choices and certain deviations from blueprints made the condos more appealing and, in some cases, more vulnerable.   

Near the pool deck, added decorative planters layered on thousands of extra pounds of weight. A hot tub was not on structural drawings; a filled hot tub can weigh 6,000 pounds.     

The area was already vulnerable. The pool deck had been designed as a flat surface, a “major error” identified decades later in 2018 in a report by the condo board’s engineering consultant. With no slope, water did not drain away but pooled below-ground, compromising the concrete structure.    

Beneath the ground floor, a switch in parking garage design eliminated certain support structures. One garage column used 80% of its support capacity to hold up concrete slabs above it, said Abi Aghayere, a professor of structural engineering at Drexel University. Only 20% was left to handle any other weight, including people, furniture and appliances. 

The New York Times and the Miami Herald reported on certain errors and changes in concrete columns and slabs. Aghayere conducted an independent analysis. 

There were too many steel reinforcing rods – rebar – inside some columns, the engineer said, which can weaken those supports by leaving too little room for concrete. Although building codes at the time required a minimum 1.5 inches of concrete covering for slabs, Aghayere found plans called for less than an inch of the protective covering. 

"Providing lower than the required concrete cover to the rebar in the garage slab – especially given that the slab had no waterproofing membrane and was frequently exposed to seawater infiltration – could have led to corrosion," Aghayere said.

That would create a vicious cycle: As the steel support rods inside concrete corrode, they expand, he said, cracks would form. Cracks create openings for more seawater to corrode still more rebar and weaken more concrete. Ultimately, Aghayere said, it undermines the strength of the slab, risking "a sudden rupture" and collapse. 

There’s no explanation, and in some cases no known records, of changes and crucial components. The entire penthouse was an add-on to original plans, in effect creating a 13th floor. Documents show gaps in specifications on types of columns to be used and how much steel support they required. 

However, marketing photos show a slender rectangular column on the sweeping penthouse balcony where blueprints for other floors in that same area called for stronger square columns. Rectangular columns are weaker, but provide a better view, a selling feature for the penthouse.     

The exterior penthouse balcony columns were exposed to corrosive salt air and rain. Construction codes required a 2-inch-thick concrete covering for those and any other exterior columns. Aghayere said he found no plans for coating in a search of city-supplied blueprints and building records.  

No one apparently noticed at the time.

“You can imagine a municipal government as small as Surfside, not having many layers of safeguards,” Intriago said. “Not doing inspections in this region of Florida is as common as you having breakfast in the morning.” 

For millionaire drug smuggler Pedro “Peggy” Rosello, Champlain South offered an under-the-radar refuge where cocaine dealing, Ferraris and indoor hot tub parties abounded.  

He arrived there in 1988, at the peak of the drug war in Miami. Cash flowed in, he said, and the luxury condo on Collins Avenue was a hub where kingpins partied hard, out of sight of undercover cops. 

From the outside, he said, the building was beguiling. The inside: discreet.  

“All the attention was still on South Beach, so I could walk into an elevator knowing nobody would catch on to me,” Rosello, told USA TODAY from his prison cell. He’s serving a sentence for a cocaine conviction at a federal prison in Miami until February 2022. 

In 1991, Rosello, a “cocaine cowboy,” said he was weeks away from buying the fifth-floor, two-bedroom condo he was renting under an alias in Champlain South. Those plans changed when authorities indicted him for his role in Miami’s biggest cocaine ring. 

“Who knows? If I would have bought it, my son, ‘little Peter,’ could have been the one living there at the time of the collapse,” he said. “But at the end, the building fell, just like our once cocaine empire.” 

By 1996, according to permits for the work, contractors were making major repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling, the underbelly of the improperly designed pool deck. Fifteen years after the building opened, concrete at its base was already falling apart. 

No one knew it at the time, but Champlain South was sinking at a rate of about 2 millimeters a year in the 1990s, according to a study of historical satellite data in 2020 by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University. USA TODAY first reported on the study hours after the building collapsed. 

Cracked walls or shifting foundations can be clues that sinking has affected the stability of a structure, experts said. Residents of the building might have noticed changes. 

“Had there been changes in the building? Cracks in the walls, in the floor? Floors not being level, things rolling off tables?” Matthys Levy, author of “Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail,” told USA TODAY in June. “That would indicate the building was shifting.” 

In 2001 and 2015, a Champlain resident filed lawsuits against the same concrete contractors the condo board hired for repairs in 1996, alleging that cracks in the building’s outer skin had allowed water to penetrate into their units. 

Champlain Towers South was sliding in desirability, relative to the surrounding buildings. Champlain South had topped the market when it opened, but by 1996, a USA TODAY analysis of real estate sales shows, the median sales price of a Champlain North or South condo was $105 per square foot, compared with $129 for other Collins Avenue condos in Surfside and Miami Beach. 

By 2001, the gap had widened: $143 per square foot at Champlain North and South compared with $193 per square foot at other beachfront condos in the area. 

Regardless of price, Champlain condos offered the two most important South Florida selling points: They were on the sand. Windows framed ocean views.  

Although lower prices may have reflected the building’s age, they also bought owners more space, said Peter Zalewski, a South Florida condo consultant.  

“It might not have been the building they wanted,” he said. “But pound for pound,” a lower cost and proximity to sand and surf made Champlain desirable: “It’s square footage versus price.”  

In 2001, Steve Rosenthal jumped at buying a two-bedroom unit with a view of the bay.  

“It was a bargain. It was the place to buy – well, until it wasn’t,” said Rosenthal, who for almost 20 years witnessed puddles appear in the parking garage during the full moon and high tide, as well as cracks snaking across balcony floors.  

“They would appear, you would complain, and nothing was ever done. They would grow, and it was the same pattern,” he said, echoing another resident on the 11th floor, who complained to the condo board in 2019 that a piece of concrete fell from the balcony above his. 

Balconies are a perennial weak link. Nationwide, before the Champlain collapse, all but two of 26 injuries involving a condo structural failure from 2015 to 2021 involved balconies. 

“People would come to my house with a stick and poke the balcony ceiling, but no work was ever done,” Rosenthal said. 

For a brief time while Rosenthal was seeing cracks spread, Florida law required deeper inspections that might have caught larger problems at Champlain South. But in 2010, Florida's Legislature killed the 2008 law that called for condominium associations to inspect and assess maintenance needs every five years. 

It was 2018 before engineers examined the building’s structure and only then because Miami-Dade County takes the rare step of requiring an inspection as a building turns 40.  

By then, time was running out. 

It took being tossed off a treadmill for Rosenthal to become a believer.  

By 2016, the sharp jolts and shakes roiling the lower levels of Champlain South were the talk of the building. For residents who lived above the third floor, the vibrations from the construction of a high-rise next door sounded like a myth. Rosenthal had felt nothing in his seventh-floor unit.  

Then, running in the first-floor gym, Rosenthal said, “I felt it for myself. The banging literally shook the gym.” His feet slipped off the treadmill, but he clutched a handle to avoid falling. “I had to hold on tight to the tread.” 

The construction of Eighty Seven Park – a taller, plusher condo complex than Champlain Towers South – brought more than complaints of shaking. It brought incessant noise. Unabating dust. Styrofoam bits floating in the communal pool. The 18-story building broke ground in 2016 on the lot immediately south of its aging neighbor, a few yards across the city line in Miami Beach. 

Construction vibrations are a common enough problem that builders take detailed photos of neighboring buildings, experts said, so they can compare them afterward to determine whether their activities might have caused cracks, settling or other damage. 

Champlain South should have been inspected before the start of Eighty Seven Park and after its completion, Aghayere said. Those pre- and post-construction surveys should have noted any existing cracks and any that formed during construction.  

A 2016 aerial photo of 87 Park construction next door to Champlain Towers South.

Florida Department of Transportation

“The construction vibrations should have been monitored during the construction using a seismograph to verify that they were not excessive,” he said. 

Developers declined to provide the vibration documents and surveys to USA TODAY.   

Seven of the 33 lawsuits filed by the families of victims of the collapse list Eighty Seven Park’s developers as defendants, saying they didn’t take precautions to protect Champlain South during construction. 

Miami Beach code compliance officers were called out to the construction site 94 times over the five years of the condo project, USA TODAY found. Records show about 62% of those were noise complaints; among the others were Champlain South residents concerned that the vibrations were damaging the decaying building. As a result, the contractor and development firm paid the town $26,500 in fines.  

No matter how many times Champlain South residents complained, nothing was done to address concerns at their building, records show. Emails between residents, the condo association and the town of Surfside document that.  

Board member Mara Chouela wrote an email to then-Surfside building official Ross Prieto in January 2019 with concerns about the building’s structural integrity.   

“We are concerned that the construction next to Surfside is too close,” she wrote. Workers were “digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”  

She attached two photos of construction equipment over the pool deck wall and asked if someone from Surfside could come check on the situation.  

Prieto responded 28 minutes later: “There is nothing for me to check.” 

USA TODAY reached out to Chouela and 26 other former Champlain South board members who served as far back as 1997 through a combination of calls, emails and handwritten letters. Chouela hung up on a reporter. Others either did not respond or would not talk for this story.  

Jay Miller, who purchased his third-floor unit in 2018, took a chance on the older Champlain South. 

“Unlike a lot of new buildings, it had very large rooms, it had very spacious hallways and apartments, so it just needed to be refreshed,” Miller told USA TODAY. “But apparently, there were underlying structural problems that nobody had raised a major alarm about.” 

The retired journalism professor noted that it wasn’t until he had moved in that he spotted red flags such as paint peeling off the ceiling and regular flooding.  

“The garage was a total disaster,” he said. “Sometimes when there was a lot of water in the basement, you literally had to wade through the water to get to your car. When I first moved in, it was bad, but it wasn't awful, but after that, it kept deteriorating.”  

Condo owners, many living on fixed incomes, are known for furious opposition to even small repair assessments, and Champlain South was no exception. Board members repeatedly emphasized the need to keep costs under control.  

One wrote in 2016, “My main concern is to oversee future projects and ensure money can be saved … and that we can make necessary upgrades without having to dig into each other’s pocket.”  

Champlain board members and activists were not uneducated: The treasurer was a CPA. Board candidates and activists included a construction company president, a chemical engineer, a residential property manager, a real estate specialist and a former bank executive.   Setting aside a bit more than $151,000 a year for repairs from 2018 to 2020, Champlain South board members may have thought their $706,000 in reserve money was ample.    

It was a fraction of the more than $15 million needed by 2021 to fix safety hazards such as cracking concrete. Eric M. Glazer, a Florida condominium law attorney, said, “The reality is that condo buildings with even $700,000 are few and far between. Some have zero dollars in their reserve accounts.”  

Surfside’s building age, and how that could affect repairs and costs, mattered to some. Before Miller bought his condo, a title company asked Surfside town officials whether the condo’s 40-year electrical and structural certification had been completed. The town said no. The sale went through.  

Four months later, in October 2018, a Morabito Consultants engineering report detailed a litany of concerns to the board. Among them: Rebar, the iron rods strengthening concrete, were exposed and deteriorating in the parking garage area. Concrete was cracking in columns, beams and walls. Previous concrete repairs were failing.   

Consultants emphasized the original design flaw underpinning the pool deck area.  There was an urgent need to rip up the concrete slab in the pool deck, they wrote, so that a waterproofing “membrane” could be installed; not doing so would cause the concrete’s deterioration to “expand exponentially.”   

When Prieto, Surfside’s lead building official, received the Morabito report, he took no action, the same way he responded to concerns about Eighty Seven Park, records show. Instead, he told condo residents their building was “in very good shape.” 

In the months after the Morabito report, condo board minutes reflect almost none of the alarming language of the findings.  

Board members reassured worried residents that they were in the process of selecting a contractor for concrete restoration. That was in August 2019.   

Almost a year later, an engineer who had been asked to walk around the building looking for needed repairs reported to the condominium manager that he had “Knocked some concrete edges off patios that looked emanate(sic) of falling.” In July 2020, a contract for concrete restoration and waterproofing work had still not been finalized. However, the board had stepped up other repair efforts.   

Almost 19 months after Morabito Consultants catalogued “abundant” cracking in concrete columns, beams and walls of the parking garage, the board voted to approve a contract with the engineering firm to oversee the repair work.  

They needed millions. “We should have started saving at least five years ago,” a condo board slideshow on finances concluded.  

As the board played catch up, Champlain South neared its final hour. 

In the early morning of June 24, the floors rumbled. The walls shook. Windows shattered.  

Was it an earthquake? A bomb? Rosenthal had no clue. As picture frames crashed to the floor, the 72-year-old moved fast, pushed by an adrenaline rush of fear. 

He grabbed a duffle bag and shoved what he thought he would need for a few days: two pair of shorts, two shirts and six pairs of socks and underwear. His favorite "Sunday funday” shoes –  bright blue loafers with shiny gold toes – made it in there, too. 

He thought he would escape the crumbling building down the stairwell, but rescuers on a cherry picker had to pluck him from his balcony. 

“I opened my door in the dark that night,” he said, “only to see the sky beneath my feet.”    

Contributing: Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, USA TODAY, and Wendy Rhodes, Palm Beach Post

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chrisamico
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Buried Treasure: Weeds, Seeds, and Zombies

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A tall seeding thistle plant in the foreground of a golden field of barley

The Beal Seed Experiment

The Beal Seed Experiment at Michigan State University is one of the longest running science experiments in the world. Frank Telewski is a professor of plant biology and only the seventh person to serve as the experiment's lead scientist since it began in 1879. Here's the paper he co-published after the last bottle was uncovered, back in 2000. Frank's since appointed three younger colleagues as successor caretakers, handing down the secret map of the location where the bottles are buried to plant scientists David Lowry, Lars Brudvig, and Marjorie Weber. Marjorie, whom we also interviewed for this episode, was the lucky one who uncovered this year’s bottle. Mark your calendars now for 2041, when the next bottle will be unearthed...

Two pairs of hands, one pale and the other encased in white work gloves, hold two yellow measuring tapes criss-crossed over grassy ground.
Marjorie Weber, Assistant Professor, Department of Plant Biology and Frank Telewski, Curator, W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum, triangulate the location of the Beal Bottles.
Overhead shot of a man with dark hair, wearing a black jacket and work gloves, shoveling dirt out of a 3 foot diameter hole under the glow of green lights. It's night and very dark outside.
Lars A. Brudvig. Associate Professor, digs for the Beal Bottle.
A man's hand holds a small, dirt-encrusted glass bottle with a narrow neck over a hole dug into the ground.
David Lowry holds the Beal Bottle.
Two pairs of hands, one pale and slightly dusty, the other wearing white work gloves, hold a glass bottle with a narrow neck that appears to be filled with sand.
Frank Telewski and Margaret Fleming, Research Associate, Plant Biology Lab, hold the bottle containing seeds buried by William J. Beal over 140 years ago.
A close-up of pale, masculine hands carefully scooping seeds and sand out of a narrow-necked glass bottle with a silver instrument. The glass bottle is being held over a tray of soil.
Frank Telewski removes seeds from the Beal Bottle in the growth chamber.
Two tiny, bright green seedlings with just a handful of leaves each are sprouting up out of some pale brown soil.
Seedlings of verbascum blattaria, a weed commonly called moth mullein, germinated from the 140 year old Beal Seed experiment.

Photos by Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University

Richard Mabey and Weeds

Richard Mabey is one of Britain’s most prolific and admired nature writers, with more than forty books to his name. He is the author of Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, a deeply enjoyable meander through the awe-inspiring ingenuity of weeds, and our doomed yet eternal battle to control them.

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