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Deadly collapse of Miami building shines light on Florida’s condo politics

The line of condominiums and hotels along Collins Avenue that offer residents sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean is now broken up by a haunting pile of rubble.

A fortnight after Champlain Towers South, a 12-storey apartment building with 136 units, collapsed in the Miami suburb of Surfside, officials in south Florida this week called off the search for survivors.

Emergency crews switched their focus to recovering the bodies of victims of the collapse, which, as of Friday evening, had killed at least 79 people with a further 61 “potentially unaccounted for”.

The search for the cause of the collapse has also begun, although investigators say it is too soon to know how long it will take — let alone what the final answer will be.

Yet what is clear is that Champlain Towers South needed to undergo millions of dollars worth of repairs as part of a 40-year “recertification”, a process established in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to ensure that buildings remain safe in the face of decades of abuse from Florida’s sun, sea and salt.

Organising those repairs fell to the board of the condominium association, a legal entity staffed by volunteer owners elected by other residents, which maintains the structure and common areas of a building comprising individually owned apartments.

The repairs were delayed because of disputes over the cost. This had ballooned from $ 9m to $ 15m before the board voted in April to fund them via a “special assessment”, a charge levied for a specific project and a dreaded prospect for many condo owners who must stump up their share.

There are parallels to the crippling bills that some apartment owners are being forced to pay as landlords upgrade the cladding on their buildings in response to the deadly Grenfell fire in London four years ago.

A woman adds flowers to a memorial featuring photos of some of those lost in the Champlain Towers South collapse © Giorgia Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Fewer than a third of condo associations in the US have sufficient funds saved up for big-ticket repairs such as structural work or replacing a roof, and experts say delays and disagreements are common not just in Florida but across the US.

“Every condominium is like a little micro-society,” said Carolina Sznajderman Sheir, a partner at Eisinger Law that specialises in condominium law.

Sheir said that, while the 40-year recertification might sound like a “very matter-of fact” process, it often results in infighting among residents. “Here’s why it’s difficult: we’re talking about monumental projects, we’re talking about millions of dollars in restoration.”

“Boards that levy assessments are not popular boards,” she added. “People don’t want to pay huge assessments . . . And politics are politics, whether they’re national or on a tiny little board.”

Annotated photograph explaining the collapse of The Champlain Towers in Miami

Marta Reeves knows only too well how the process can descend into acrimony. Her family has lived for more than three decades at the Imperial at Brickell, a 161-unit building located about 12 miles south-west of Champlain Towers South. Built in 1983 along Biscayne Bay, its distinctive “red wall” can be seen in the opening credits of the 1980s television show “Miami Vice”.

The situation at the Imperial underscores how debates over how to pay for repairs can lead to hostility: owners with varying incomes and differing philosophies over how much maintenance is necessary snipe at one another, sometimes over Facebook or email.

Reeves won a seat on the Imperial condo board in 2010, and was part of a co-ordinated slate of officers elected in March 2018. The five new board members passed a $ 1m special assessment to repair the roof, cooling tower and elevators because the building lacked enough reserves to pay for the work.

The board subsequently decided to replace the 944 windows along the famous red wall; an engineer’s report from more than a decade ago had said they were reaching the end of their useful life. The building’s 40-year certification, coming due in 2023, called for a waterproof “envelope”, while new building codes specified the glass should be able to resist the impact of hurricanes that batter Florida’s coastline.

So the board passed a $ 9m assessment, which would have cost homeowners between $ 45,000 and $ 62,000 per unit. Despite securing financing to help homeowners bear the cost, Reeves and her fellow four board members then lost their bid for re-election in February 2020.

The current and former boards of the Imperial condo disagree on maintenance for the 944 windows along its ‘red wall,’ which can be seen in the opening credits of the 1980s television show ‘Miami Vice’ © Claire Bushey

“It’s not a popular job when, after years of not fixing things in a timely manner, the piper is going to come,” said Reeves. “That’s what got us voted out.”

Reeves looked on in frustration as the new board tried to tackle the repairs with what she perceived as less organisational acumen than before. “I’m not saying that they’re not fixing it,” she said. “They’re putting Band-aids on it.”

Rissig Licha, a member of the Imperial’s current board, dismissed such suggestions. In an emailed statement, she said the board had “made compliance with the 40-year recertification its primary objective since assuming office”.

The board also said it had “actively communicated” with owners during the process and had sought out “the best structural and construction experts and specialists at considerable expense”.

Florida has 1.5m condos, more than any other state. State law requires associations to have a schedule to pay for big repairs, but there is a loophole: homeowners can vote to waive paying into a reserve fund. Only six states require condos to maintain “adequate” reserves without giving homeowners the option to waive the requirement.

Sheir, the attorney, noted that many of Florida’s condo owners are retirees and are therefore less concerned with the long-term upkeep of their property. They would prefer to keep the monthly association dues as low as possible, she added.

“People just don’t want to pay higher assessments,” she said. “They’d rather have the money in their pocket than in someone else’s.”

Failing to keep money aside for capital improvements is a problem across the US, but it is particularly acute in Florida, where the climate exacts a harsher toll on buildings. Constructors use concrete because the weight of the material protects against hurricanes, but over time Ultraviolet rays and salty air end up corroding the material, according to Sinisa Kolar, vice-president of the engineering and architectural consulting firm Falcon Group.

The rest of the condo was demolished on July 4 © Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Some local politicians have suggested that Florida should cut the recertification process from 40 years to 20, which Kolar said would “make everybody aware of the work that they absolutely need”.

But Robert Nordlund, chief executive of Association Reserves, is sceptical of whether legislation can force condo owners to budget for future repairs.

What might make more of a difference, he said, is if insurers and mortgage lenders considered the state of a condo association’s finances when setting premiums or making a loan. Lenders generally only require that a condo association’s reserve fund be 10 per cent funded before they are willing to give a mortgage to a buyer.

“The risk factors are there, and they’re so obvious,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re missing those clues . . . I wonder if this is a time that they will start to learn and refine their underwriting standards.”

The Surfside disaster has gripped the residents at Imperial, just as it has at condo buildings throughout Miami.

Emergency support columns were placed in the building’s parking garage last week, but Licha said the structural engineers hired by the condo association “have not identified repairs or conditions not ordinary and consistent with similarly situated buildings of the same age group”. Reeves agrees with the current board that the apartment block is structurally sound.

Still, at least one resident seemed unnerved this week. He stopped his car in the garage to tell Reeves that he had written to the board to express his worries. She told him to keep writing: tragedies sometimes bring change.

“It is a very high cost,” he replied.

Millions of people face life-threatening storm surge and heavy winds and rains as Tropical Storm Elsa moves north off the coast toward Florida’s Big Bend area

Elsa is churning off the western coast of Florida with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph as it moves north on a collision course with the Big Bend region, where it is expected to make landfall late Wednesday morning or early in the afternoon.
A Tampa resident covers his windows with hurricane shutters in preparation for Hurricane Elsa Tuesday.
The storm was about 50 miles southwest of Cedar Key Wednesday morning.
Hurricane warnings were in place from the Chassahowitzka River, just to the south of Homosassa, Florida, to the Steinhatchee River.  The hurricane warnings south of the Chassahowitzka River to Egmont Key, Florida, have been replaced by tropical storm warnings.
Bands of heavy rain and strong winds continue to spread inland across southwest and west-central Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center. A tornado watch has been issued for parts of Florida until 8 a.m., according to a tweet from the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay office.
While the system weakened to a tropical storm early Wednesday after becoming a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday, hurricane warnings remain in place for more than four million people in Florida. More than 12 million people are under a tropical storm warning across three states.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded his state of emergency declaration Tuesday to include a total of 33 counties as local, state and utility resources continue to prepare for the incoming storm.
The Florida National Guard has activated 60 guardsmen to serve at the State Emergency Operations Center and Logistics Readiness Center, according to a release from the Guard. It is prepared to activate additional personnel as needed.
“We are well-equipped with assets including high-wheeled vehicles, helicopters, boats and generators, and are preparing for possible missions to include humanitarian assistance, security operations, search and rescue, aviation, and more,” the guard said in the release.
In Tampa, officials urged residents to stay off the roads as the storm approaches.

Counties and utilities preparing ahead of storm

Both the mayor and emergency coordinator for the city of Tampa posted on social media Tuesday to encourage residents to stay home and be prepared.
“We are prepared here in the city of Tampa but we need you to do your part as well,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video posted to Twitter. “Don’t go outside tonight. If you don’t have to, do not go outside. Stay in.”
“We want everybody to be safe in Tampa and we’ll be up all night monitoring the storm so you don’t have to,” she added.
Earlier, Tampa Emergency Coordinator John Antapasis said it was time for residents to get to safety ahead of the expected landfall.
“Now is the time to get back home, get off the streets and stay safe for the rest of tonight,” he said. “You should be making and finalizing your hurricane plans and ensuring that you’re in a safe location while … Elsa makes it’s way through out community.”
Antapasis advised that people who need to be on the road should check the city’s flood map.
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes also warned people to get ready for the storm during a press conference Tuesday.
“Please finalize your plans and secure your homes and get ready to sort of bunker down and ride out this storm,” Hopes said.
Shelters were opened in at least five counties Tuesday and two counties issued voluntary evacuation orders.
Duke Energy, which serves 1.8 million customers in Florida, according to its website, is preparing for anticipated outages from the storm.
The utility said in a press release Tuesday that it has staged 3,000 utility “crew members, contractors, tree specialists and other personnel” from Pinellas County to north Florida.
Additional line workers and support personnel have also been brought in from the Carolinas, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, according to the release.
The University of Florida in Gainesville has canceled classes for Wednesday in anticipation of the storm, the university said in a statement.

Tropical storm warnings and emergency declarations extended

Ahead of Elsa’s landfall in Florida, tropical storm watches and warnings have been issued in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia.
The warnings extend along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.
A tropical storm watch has been issued for the entire coast of North Carolina and up to Chincoteague, Virginia, and for the Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.
On Tuesday, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp issued a State of Emergency in preparation for the impact of Elsa.
“This storm system has the potential to produce destructive impacts to citizens throughout the central, southern, and coastal regions of the State of Georgia and due to the possibility of downed trees, power lines, and debris, Georgia’s network of roads may be rendered impassable in the affected counties, isolating residences and persons from access to essential public services,” Kemp said.
A State of Emergency has been declared in 91 of Georgia’s 159 counties, according to Kemp’s order. The order will expire Wednesday at midnight unless the governor decides to renew it.

Author: Hollie Silverman, Michael Guy and Rebekah Riess, CNN
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Florida’s New Social Media Law Will Be Laughed Out of Court

Florida’s new social media legislation is a double landmark: It’s the first state law regulating online content moderation, and it will almost certainly become the first such law to be struck down in court.

On Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Stop Social Media Censorship Act, which greatly limits large social media platforms’ ability to moderate or restrict user content. The bill is a legislative distillation of Republican anger over recent episodes of supposed anti-conservative bias, like Twitter and Facebook shutting down Donald Trump’s account and suppressing the spread of the infamous New York Post Hunter Biden story. Most notably, it imposes heavy fines—up to $ 250,000 per day—on any platform that deactivates the account of a candidate for political office, and it prohibits platforms from taking action against “journalistic enterprises.”

It is very hard to imagine any of these provisions ever being enforced, however.

“This is so obviously unconstitutional, you wouldn’t even put it on an exam,” said A. Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami. Under well established Supreme Court precedent, the First Amendment prohibits private entities from being forced to publish or broadcast someone else’s speech. Prohibiting “deplatforming” of political candidates would likely be construed as an unconstitutional must-carry provision. “This law looks like a political freebie,” Froomkin said. “You get to pander, and nothing bad happens, because there’s no chance this will survive in court.” (The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The Constitution isn’t the only problem for the new law. It also conflicts with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that generally holds online platforms immune from liability over their content moderation decisions. Section 230 has become an object of resentment on both sides of the political aisle, but for different reasons. Liberals tend to think the law lets online platforms get away with leaving too much harmful material up. Conservative critics, on the other hand, argue that it lets them get away with taking too much stuff down—and, worse, that it allows them to censor conservatives under the guise of content moderation.

Regardless of the merits of these critiques, the fact is that Section 230 remains in effect, and, like many federal statutes, it explicitly preempts any state law that conflicts with it. That is likely to make any attempt to enforce the Stop Social Media Censorship Act an expensive waste of time. Suppose a candidate for office in Florida repeatedly posts statements that violate Facebook’s policies against vaccine misinformation, or racism, and Facebook bans their account. (Like, say, Laura Loomer, a self-described “proud Islamophobe” who ran for Congress last year in Florida after being banned from Facebook and many other platforms.) If she sues under the new law, she will be seeking to hold Facebook liable for a decision to remove user content. But Section 230 says that platforms are free “to restrict access to or availability of material” as long as they do so in good faith. (Facebook and Twitter declined to comment on whether they plan to comply with the Florida law or fight it in court. YouTube didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Section 230 will probably preempt other aspects of the Florida law that are less politically controversial than the prohibition on deplatforming politicians. For example, the Florida statute requires platforms to set up elaborate due process rights for users, including giving them detailed information about why a certain piece of content was taken down, and to let users opt into a strictly chronological newsfeed with no algorithmic curation. Both of these ideas have common-sense appeal among tech reformers across the political spectrum, and versions of them are included in proposed federal legislation. But enforcing those provisions as part of a state law in court would most likely run afoul of Section 230, because it would boil down to holding a platform liable for hosting, or not hosting, a piece of user-generated content. Florida’s legislature has no power to change that.

Author: Gilad Edelman
This post originally appeared on Business Latest

Do Photos Show People With a Dead Tiger Shark in Florida’s Chassahowitzka River?

In early May 2021, photographs that reportedly showed a man holding what appeared to be a tiger shark along the bank of Florida’s Chassahowitzka River sparked criticism on social media and launched an investigation by wildlife officials. The pictures were widely reported by both Florida and national media outlets, as well as shared within several groups on Facebook.



Facebook

The Chassahowitzka River is located along the Gulf of Mexico in central Florida. Though some species of shark have been known to swim into brackish waters like estuaries and river mouths, it is uncommon for a saltwater shark to survive in the freshwater of rivers. Marine conservation organization Oceana noted in a blog post that freshwater rivers and lakes are “generally out of the question for species such as great white sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerhead sharks.”

At the time of writing, it is not yet known where the tiger shark was initially captured or how it wound up in the Chassahowitzka River. Snopes attempted to contact the photographers but did not hear back at the time of publication. In an email to Snopes, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) confirmed that the tiger shark had been caught in state waters in the Gulf of Mexico and was brought to the Chassahowitzka River.

“The FWC is aware of the incident that took place over the weekend on the Chassahowitzka River involving a tiger shark. The FWC takes this very seriously and is grateful to everyone who reported this incident. Tiger sharks are prohibited from harvest in state waters,” wrote FWC Public Information Coordinator Karen Parker.

“FWC law enforcement officers have investigated this incident and have issued a Notice to Appear to two individuals for taking a prohibited species of shark. The two subjects currently have a Citrus County court date.”

Both individuals face a charge under 68B-44.004(3)(b), a ruling under the Florida Department of State that prohibits individuals from harvesting or possessing prohibited species from Florida waters. So named for the tiger-liked vertical markings along their sides, tiger sharks are considered as “Near Threatened” by The World Conservation Union and are protected from commercial and recreational harvest in Florida state waters.

Neither person has been identified by law enforcement officials, but we will update the article as more information becomes available. 

Author: Madison Dapcevich
This post originally appeared on Snopes.com