What we need to learn from the tragedy at Surfside


Sarah Near was in her ground-floor apartment in Champlain Towers South, in Surfside, Florida, at about 1 a.m. A.m On June 24, she told CNN, she heard loud knocks. I went outside to report them to the security guard, and while they were talking, they saw a hole opening into the parking area and an adjacent pool deck, above an underground garage. She ran back to her apartment, where her son and daughter were, and said to them: “Run as fast as you can!” they did it. Many of their neighbors did not. A week later, 18 bodies were recovered. One hundred and forty-five people are still missing.

Illustration by Joao Fazenda

Nir’s story is a story of luck, split-second choices, and a human drama. But accounts like hers are under scrutiny for clues about the cause of the disaster, because, for now, all the experts can offer are questions. Did the structural failure start in the garage, as the pit might suggest? Were the support columns, or foundation, breached, possibly due to nearby construction? Was the problem in the land itself? A study of satellite data from the 1990s, published last year and co-authored by a professor at Florida International University, that happened to include Champlain Towers South. And it found evidence of a “fall”: the thirteen-story condominium complex, built in 1981, was sinking at a rate of one to three millimeters per year. However, this one in Florida isn’t very cool. (Other parts of the state have major sewer problems.) In many ways, the Champlain Towers look a lot like any number of buildings in the state, which is what makes identifying the warnings that were in place about the disaster—and what’s greater. Warning they may represent – I feel very urgent. When the rescue was just beginning, Charles Burkett, mayor of Surfside, which is located in Miami-Dade County, told CBS News, “Buildings like this don’t fall in America.” His words, with their implied appeal to the peculiarity of the nation, sounded almost sad.

Witness accounts stretched back to before the collapse. A contractor said to Miami Announce He had come to look at the area under the pond just a couple of days ago, and saw corroded rebar and cracks in the concrete, as well as standing water. A building employee told him that the building pumped so much water that the pump motors had to be replaced every two years. (A maintenance supervisor who worked there in the late 1990s recalled seawater entering. He told CBS Miami, “Pumps can never keep up.”) A 2018 engineering report, conducted prior to the building’s forty-year required rehabilitation, found “structural damage.” Large” under the pool deck area. In April of this year, the head of the condominium association sent a letter to residents noting that in the two and a half years since the report was released, the situation had become “much worse”.

Most surprising of the letter, however, is the Assembly President’s insistence that none of the speech should be news to the population—she wrote that the issues, she wrote, “have been discussed, debated, and debated for years” (this claim is likely to be challenged in court; Many of the remaining residents have already sued.) All that was left to deal with was an appraisal of fifteen million dollars to pay for necessary repairs. “A lot of this work could have been done or planned in years past,” she wrote. “But that’s where we are now.”

Reading the report today, one might wonder why the population survived. But a month after members of the association received it, a town inspector told them the building was “in very good condition.” This ruling may say more about construction in Florida than it does about the safety of Champlain Towers South; Decades of statewide population boom, uneven and poorly enforced standards, with holes in older construction. Building codes in South Florida were tightened after Hurricane Andrew destroyed tens of thousands of homes in 1992, but that’s hardly enough. On the Saturday after the collapse, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniela Levine Cava announced an “emergency audit” of apartment buildings forty years or older in her jurisdiction. The audit identified four hundred and sixty-nine multi-family buildings of particular safety concern. Twenty-four of those buildings are at least four stories high; Two of eighteen floors. Two public housing complexes.

It’s also possible that southern Florida, where climate change presents a particularly serious challenge, is approaching a point where the best-built buildings are under threat. Severe tornadoes became more frequent; There were concerns last week that search and rescue efforts at Surfside might interfere with storm preparations. Miami, a port city built on porous limestone, suffers not only from rising sea levels but also from water seeping from below. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, has started talking about building for “resilience,” but appears to be spending more energy trying to stay on the good side of Donald Trump and ban critical race theory in public schools. In general, GOP leaders have resisted taking real steps to tackle climate change — and many still deny that the problem even exists.

The effects of climate change are not limited to Florida – wildfire season is underway in California, temperatures are at record levels in the Northwest – nor is infrastructure deteriorating. In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its quadrennial report on the state of the country’s infrastructure, giving it a C minus mark. The ASCE found more than forty-six thousand bridges “structurally defective” and indicated that the power grid was struggling to keep up with extreme weather events. Last Thursday, at Surfside, President Biden, thanking first responders, said, “Your brothers and sisters across this country are under more pressure,” noting the heat and dire need for firefighters in the West.

We don’t know why this building fell, but we do know that others will. The nation has received numerous engineering reports outlining the severe risks we face. Yet despite the initial deal on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, Republicans are fighting the second installment — which, crucially, would do more to link infrastructure and climate priorities — as if it was a onerous apartment appraisal. The cost of the required repairs is high. But this is where we are now. ♦

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