Morabito’s knowledge of the Surfside, Fla., condo building that collapsed last month gave him a prime vantage point to detect any visible signs that the building’s integrity was in doubt, according to a Washington Post review of board minutes and other documents. He had performed a 2018 inspection that found “major structural damage” to a concrete slab under the pool deck and entrance drive and been hired to help the board select and oversee a construction company to address that and other issues in an estimated $15 million project.
His oversight role left him still intimately involved with the 12-story, 136-unit building — drawing detailed plans, pursuing permits from town officials and attending condo association meetings. Yet work on the most serious problems identified in his report — including concrete restoration — had not begun when the building fell, killing 28 and leaving 117 unaccounted for as of Monday night.
While experts and investigators caution that it is too early to reach any conclusions about the cause or causes of the collapse, the tragedy has trained a spotlight on Morabito and his Sparks, Md.-based business — a family-run, 23-employee company that he launched in Maryland in 1983 and has expanded with the help of two brothers, who also lead the firm.
Surviving condo owners and relatives of the missing have begun filing lawsuits alleging Morabito, the condo association, Surfside building officials and others ignored or missed warning signs before the June 24 catastrophe.
“We had no idea the building was in imminent danger,” Max Friedman, a former board member who is not a party in the litigation filed, told The Post. “Why didn’t he tell us the building was going to fall down?”
Brett Marcy, a spokesman for Morabito, declined to comment for this report but pointed to a July 1 statement that said, in part, that the firm “did their job, just as they have done for nearly four decades – providing expert structural engineering counsel and services. And they will continue to work with the investigating authorities to understand why this structure failed, so that such a catastrophic event can never happen again.”
Escalante, who sold her condo last year, could not be reached for comment.
Morabito, 66, received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland and is licensed to do structural engineering work in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to his spokesman.
His firm’s website touts its involvement in high-profile projects, including the expansion of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City, Md., and the restoration of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, now the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. The company assisted in the strengthening of concrete components during the remediation of the Dolphin Tower condo building in Sarasota, Fla., a building that some feared could collapse and whose residents were evacuated in 2010. That building reopened in 2015.
On Morabito’s company website, he cites the Sarasota condo restoration project in Florida as his favorite, because he provided design ideas “that saved the homeowners millions of dollars and helped them return home safely and efficiently.”
Morabito has been working primarily from Florida since 2018, his spokesman said. He and his wife bought a home in Florida in 2019, and his Florida engineering license states he is based there. An online database maintained by the Florida Board of Professional Engineers, which regulates and licenses engineers and investigates complaints, shows no complaints against Morabito.
Four building professionals who have worked with Morabito in the past and spoke with The Post described him as careful and thorough.
Tom Spies, a retired architect who estimated that he had worked closely with Morabito on more than 100 projects over several decades, said Morabito was “absolutely first-rate” and “generally conservative with his structural design.”
Spies, who was chairman of Baltimore-based CSD Architects, one of Maryland’s largest architectural firms before it closed in 2009, said Morabito was “our go-to guy.”
“Concrete was a big specialty of his — he was good with both concrete and steel,” he added. Spies cautioned that he did not know the details of Morabito’s work in Surfside but said, based on his previous record, “I’m going to guess what he has done is above any standard of care.”
Working in Surfside
In Surfside, Morabito won over the condo building’s board after competing with several other engineering firms to supervise the repairs, board minutes show. Board members blanched at the cost of the repairs he proposed, including his fee of $546,900, plus any unanticipated engineering services to be billed hourly.
“I have to say that upon the commencement of this exercise I was a bit skeptical of Morabito’s services and I suffered from sticker shock as did many of the Residents and Committee Members,” Escalante wrote to board members in her September 2019 letter.
But she added: “In my opinion, Morabito’s project approach is down to earth and realistic. He is not advising us of what we want to hear, but he is honestly providing his professional opinion of the state of our building and what it is going to take to restore it.”
Escalante chaired a committee charged with making recommendations to the board about the building’s safety recertification, which Miami-Dade County building code required this year, 40 years after its construction.
Morabito’s inspection report in 2018 gave the board a jump on the recertification deadline.
While Morabito’s 2018 report finding “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck has received much attention since the collapse, it is not clear from his report how urgent he considered the issue. He did not mention that finding in the report’s introduction, and it is cited after issues including storm water entering units through sliding-glass doors and potential damage to balcony slabs. He broaches the subject in a section of the report that discusses the parking-garage and pool-deck repairs.
His subsequent hiring as the supervising engineer for the building’s repairs put him in a position to continue to monitor the damage.
An Aug. 21, 2019, proposal Morabito submitted to the board describes in detail the work he would undertake as supervising engineer. It was separated into three phases: preparing documents that detail needed repairs and installing roof safety anchors; overseeing the selection of a concrete restoration contractor; and monitoring construction.
Documents released by Surfside town officials show that work in the first of those phases was underway. The day before the collapse, Surfside issued a permit for stucco work and the installation of the roof safety anchors to protect workers from falls, records show.
As part of that phase, Morabito’s proposal said, the company would provide “an experienced structural engineer to prepare repair documents which will describe, in detail, the repair and maintenance work that needs to be completed to this building structure.”
It is not clear from publicly available records whether those documents had been completed.
A letter Morabito sent to the condo board’s president in October 2020 said that contractors had taken samples of concrete from slabs around the ground level of the complex and that testing had produced “some curious results,” which the letter did not specify.
In April 2020, board president Jean Wodnicki sent a letter to the building’s residents, warning that “when performing any concrete restoration work, it is impossible to know the extent of the damage to the underlying rebar until the concrete is opened up. Oftentimes the damage is more extensive than can be determined by inspection of the surface.”
Morabito’s firm said in a statement after the collapse that the concrete restoration work had not begun.
In recent months, Morabito was working closely with town officials to secure approvals needed for the start of construction, documents released by Surfside show. In May, he wrote to town officials asking for authorization to set up a temporary satellite parking lot needed during construction.
“It is [Champlain Towers South’s] desire to go out to bid for our 40-year recertification work ASAP and need the Town of Surfside input on this request so everyone has a clear understanding on how this project will be accomplished,” Morabito wrote to three Surfside officials on May 20.
Winning board approval
The condo board’s minutes show that the board examined Morabito’s prior work, seeking references. A May 2020 slide presentation shows that “license, legal and [Better Business Bureau] checks showed no issues.” It also indicated that Morabito had worked on other large condominium buildings in Florida, including the Mirador 1000 in Miami Beach and Flamenco Towers in Aventura.
A person associated with the Flamenco Towers project served as a reference for Morabito to the Champlain Towers South board, saying he showed “excellent attention to detail” and was “easy to work with,” according to the slide presentation. The reference said Morabito “came up with alternative methods that saved time and money.”
In 2010, a real estate holding company connected to Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos sued Morabito and his firm, alleging they failed to properly oversee the restoration of an underground parking garage and allowed costs to balloon as the scope of work expanded.
Morabito denied the accusation and paid an undisclosed amount to settle the case, Baltimore Circuit Court records show.
The Florida Board of Professional Engineers did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether it is investigating or plans to investigate any engineer involved with Champlain Towers South.
The Florida administrative code lays out possible disciplinary measures for negligence, defined as a “failure by a professional engineer to utilize due care in performing in an engineering capacity or failing to have due regard for acceptable standards of engineering and special inspection principles.”
The challenges Morabito was facing at Champlain Towers South appear similar to those of the earlier Dolphin Tower project in Sarasota, where he helped strengthen a failed concrete slab, enlarge concrete columns and add foundation piles.
In that high-rise, a resident of the building overlooking Sarasota Bay found a wall bowing under pressure and cracks in the floor in 2010, according to news reports. Engineers soon discovered other alarming signs of deterioration and strain, and officials ordered the then nearly four-decade-old building vacated.
It was thought to be the first time an occupied high-rise had to be evacuated because of structural problems not related to weather or fire, the St. Petersburg Times reported at the time. Morabito Consultants was among several firms called in for a restoration project that took five years and cost nearly $9 million. The project won awards from the International Concrete Repair Institute and the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations.
Hytham Bakr, president of Bakr Group, the Dolphin Tower project’s manager and owner’s representative, said Morabito was brought in by Dolphin Tower’s repair contractor, Baltimore-based Concrete Protection & Restoration, or CPR. Morabito’s role was to provide “value engineering,” Bakr told The Post.
Morabito has worked with CPR on various other projects, including Champlain Towers South before its collapse. CPR performed some “exploratory demolition” on the Surfside condo building’s first floor, according to a letter Morabito wrote to the condo board president in October. A spokesman for CPR said its officials declined to comment.
The Sarasota firm Karins Engineering diagnosed the flaws and designed the restoration for Dolphin Tower, Bakr said. Karins, one of the firms Morabito beat out to be the supervising engineer at Champlain Towers South, did not respond to a request for comment.
“He’s a great guy,” Bakr said of Morabito. “I could see he’s very creative, very smart, and he did an excellent job.”