Yet Randolph was spectacularly wrong. By the many millions people have flocked to Florida, and not just from hell. From everywhere: Minsk and Montevideo; Coney Island and Caracas. Florida has swollen past New York to become the third-most-populous state, with more than 21.5 million residents, behind only California and Texas.
You might say sunshine, beaches and a booming economy explain the appeal. But all that is secondary to engineering. Super-populated Florida is an invention of modern manufacture, an intricate machinery of canals, pumping stations, dredges, reclamations, pilings, piers, landfills and drains. Florida — especially South Florida — is built on former wetlands, former sandbars, former Everglades. And everywhere haunted by water.
While it was still standing, Champlain Towers South, in Surfside, was one rather nondescript example of what the great South Florida writer Michael Grunwald, in his book “The Swamp,” called “the transformation of South Florida, from a virtually uninhabited wasteland to a densely populated Fantasyland.” Though the cause of the condominium collapse won’t be known for some time, chances are good that its disastrous demise is another aspect of that same story. In some way, the building lost its battle with primal Florida, a battle fought by countless high-rise towers, low-slung office buildings and single-family homes every day.
Original Florida asserts itself via mold and mildew, via snakes and insects, via seepage and weepage and outright floods. Rising sea levels are tipping the balance against the buildings, because now there is more water than ever to trap, pump, divert or drain.
Miami Beach, perhaps the world’s most expensive sandbar, routinely finds itself underwater at high tide these days. Rebuilding the Atlantic Coast beach is a Sisyphean effort, as the ocean relentlessly chews it away — a process called “nourishing” by marketing departments and “dredging” by engineers. Even so, witnesses testify that the underground garage at the doomed oceanfront condominium was frequently flooded.
Over time, seawater can do a number on concrete, leading to cracking, spalling and general deterioration. When enough concrete wastes away, the reinforcing steel rebar inside concrete structures can be exposed to rust away in the salt air. These effects were noted at Champlain Towers South, and they were severe enough to inspire the condominium owners association to propose urgent and expensive repairs.
Below the surface, Florida rests on a foundation of limestone. As water seeps through the overlying layer of sandy soil, it becomes slightly acidic — enough to eat through the limestone little by little. When enough limestone is gone, the soil can collapse into the resulting void, creating a sinkhole at the surface.
This is another way that original Florida destroys buildings, and it’s possible the Surfside condo lost a footing to a sinkhole. Statistically speaking, however, sinkholes are more common in Central Florida than on the South Florida beaches.
Buildings also fail due to errors and shortcuts in construction or insufficient attention to maintenance. We don’t know yet if these factors played a part in the Florida disaster — but it’s fair to say that shoddiness is not unheard of in the Sunshine State. After Hurricane Andrew inflicted record damage on South Florida in 1992, the Miami Herald documented widespread flaws in the design and construction of homes. “Builders’ Shortcuts to Disaster,” one headline summed up.
We’re told that standards are higher now, that Florida homes are built to withstand Florida weather. The proof will come inevitably — for there will be another monster hurricane, whether it hits this year or a few generations from now. This, too, is primal Florida.
But the question is moot, because the people are there and their numbers are likely to continue to grow. The lesson to be drawn from the Surfside disaster is that lives in Florida are propped up by artifice and the skills of engineers. It is possible to live that way — but not without careful attention to the details and condition of this artificial world. The elements are never conquered, merely kept at bay, ready to strike back if given a chance.