Cause of Miami condo collapse unclear, but experts say barrier islands pose risks


There are more questions than answers after a 12-story building collapsed in Surfside, Florida on Thursday, leaving at least four dead and 11 injured. More than 150 people are still missing in the small Miami Beach community.

Local officials seemed to have little idea so far about what could have caused the inexplicable collapse of the 136-unit building. Scientists have long noted, however, the risk of building on the quicksand of a barrier island like Miami Beach, especially with sea level rise. This may not be the reason for the collapse. , but it remains an engineering challenge in the region.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told reporters he often jogs near the condominium, which was built in the early 1980s. He said he knew he had suffered injuries. minor construction and roofing work which included a recent crane, but he noted that many buildings are undergoing similar maintenance.

Search and rescue personnel work after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

“There’s no reason for this building to collapse like this,” Burkett said, “unless someone literally pulls the brackets out from underneath, or they are blown away, or there’s a chasm or something, because it just fell. “

“I mean, it looks like a bomb went off, but we’re pretty sure a bomb didn’t go off,” the mayor told NBC’s “TODAY” show.

“Buildings don’t just collapse”

Kenneth Direktor, attorney at Becker, a law firm that has worked for the building industry since 1993, told the Miami Herald that the building had hired an engineer to go through a 40-year recertification process, as required by the Miami-Dade County building code.

“They were well advanced in reviewing the project with the engineer,” Direktor told the Miami Herald.

Any property in the county that was built four decades or more ago must complete the inspection process within a few years of that anniversary to certify that “every building or structure is structurally and electrically safe for the specified use for an continuous occupation ”, according to county notice sent to owners.

There are recent examples of local government closing condominiums in Miami Beach and forcing residents to relocate if they fail their inspections, said Peter Zalewski, director of Condo Vultures, a southern real estate market analysis firm. from Florida. Miami Beach has closed the Castle Beach Club to residents for more than two years in 2005 after the building failed to deal with structural damage and electrical faults, he said.

“I’ve been here since 1993, and I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” Zalewski added, referring to Thursday’s condominium collapse. “You would think that such serious problems would have been detectable. If a recertification was in progress, expect reports indicating what issues currently exist in the building.

“I have a feeling that something else is going to be discovered that has happened that we cannot assume from the start,” Zalewski added. “Forty-year-old buildings don’t just collapse, and there’s a whole series of them lining up along the coast.

Public records did not show many problems with the building beyond two lawsuits for cracks in a unit’s exterior wall.

A condo owner sued the unit’s association for failing to repair cracks in his unit’s exterior wall in 2015, according to a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County. The owner of the condo, who could not be reached for comment, said the cracks resulted in water damage that cost $ 15,000. Court documents indicated that since the cracks were a structural issue, the building association was responsible for the expense.

The owner of the condo had already filed a complaint against the building association in 2001 because of a similar problem. The two sides settled out of court, but this kind of cracking is described as “of interest” in the county. Structural recertification form.

Becker, the law firm that works for the building and represented it in the 2015 lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment.

“A real awakening”

Another problem at hand for the Surfside community is one shared with all of Miami Beach: Cities are built on a barrier island. Climatologists and geologists have long warned that these islands cannot be responsibly developed. They are made of a loose mixture of sand and mud and provide natural protection for the shore.

“These are very dynamic features. We didn’t understand that these islands were actually migrating until the 1970s, ”said Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University who has long studied sea level rise and coastal overdevelopment. “As the sea level rises, they recede. “

An analysis of satellite images taken of Miami Beach, which includes the city of Surfside, found that the area had moved slightly each year during the 1990s, according to a study published in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management in April 2020. The report noted that these problems can lead to flooding and increased risks to local communities.

Americans have built an estimated $ 3 trillion in properties on barrier islands and coastal floodplains, according to “The Geography of Risk,” a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Gilbert Gaul that analyzes real estate investment in seaside communities. over the past century.

“It’s a tough conversation to have, but the building shouldn’t have been there,” said Pilkey, “along with a lot of other buildings. We’re expected for a real wake-up call.

In the meantime, Zalewski has said he believes buildings of a similar age will likely undergo further scans and inspections in the wake of the tragedy. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if Florida started requiring construction reports to be turned over to the state for review in the future.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s going to be a drastic change for condos. “

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