No one can yet say what exactly caused Champlain Towers South, a 40-year-old oceanfront condominium building in Surfside, to collapse at 1:30 a.m. on Thursday. Officially, 11 people have died, but another 150 people are still unaccounted for. Hope for even just one more rescue is quickly fading.
Questions abound: Did a column, corroded, perhaps, by water, collapse in the underground parking garage? Was the design flaw of the slab below the pool deck to blame? Did the concrete grow flaky and the rebar rusty from soaking in water? Or is it that the barrier island where Surfside sits is sinking slowly? How about erosion, or the massive construction project next door (yet another condo), or the work last week on Champlain South’s roof? Perhaps it was all, or some combination, of the above.
One thing is for sure. In Florida, water is always a prime suspect. “We have to live in that precarious balance of having to build on what is essentially a big puddle of water,” Eliana Salzhauer, a Surfside commissioner, told reporters.
Frank Morabito of Morabito Consultants, who was hired to conduct a structural survey of the Champlain Towers South in anticipation of the building recertification process required for such buildings 40 years after their construction, issued the loudest warning in his Oct. 8, 2018, report. Morabito said there was “major structural damage” on a concrete slab below the pool deck in the section of the tower that collapsed. The waterproofing below the deck was failing, and the slab had been built flat, not sloped, allowing water to collect, which he called a “major error.” He warned that, unless the waterproofing was replaced in the near future, the concrete deterioration would expand “exponentially.”
Despite the report’s stark language, the Surfside chief building official who met with Champlain Towers South residents a month later told them the condo was in “very good shape,” according to the minutes of the meeting, NPR reported. There was little sense of urgency. Eventually, after the board secured a line of credit, passed a special assessment and hired Morabito’s company, the association began repairs this year on the roof. Now there are new reports of saltwater seeping into the garage through the foundation.
The collapse, though, changed South Florida’s metabolism, and it was about time. In Miami-Dade County, the mayor called for an audit of older buildings inside county boundaries; cities also laid plans to inspect older buildings. Government officials in Palm Beach County, which, unlike Miami-Dade, has no 40-year requirement for the recertification of buildings, are now considering one. And Fort Lauderdale’s mayor wants new guidelines. There is also a push to require underground inspections.
It’s a much-needed reckoning. But why wait 40 years, really? Residential buildings should be recertified much more frequently than that. Florida was a vastly different place 40 years ago. Climate change and sea level rise were obscure terms. Flooding was rare. And the building boom, well, it was just powering up toward never-ending.
Undoubtedly, any necessary changes will cost condo owners buckets of money; investing in infrastructure and upkeep is always a major stumbling block. (Just look at the nation’s roads, bridges and tunnels.) Floridians can’t help but cling to the airbrushed version of our flip-flops paradise, one where doomsday scenarios are someone else’s problems. In a snap, though, decades became years, and suddenly the crisis is here. We need to pay our fair share to save our state and also protect our residents.
The reality is our water-related struggles worsen every year. We have sunny-day floods and regular stormy-day floods. Our buildings, roads and sea walls need to be elevated. Saltwater threatens our drinking water. Storms are growing more intense and frequent. We continually face algae blooms and seaweed invasions. There is sewage and debris in our ocean and blankets of dying fish (not to mention manatees).
Our last governor, Rick Scott, now a Republican U.S. senator, did little for eight years to address the root causes of this deterioration, probably because the price was too high and the immediate political payoff was negligible.
Preserving what we love about Florida means fixing what ails it. The likely loss of 161 people from a building collapse is gut-wrenching. Explanations are elusive. But the collapse’s legacy should spur steely determination — and significant investment — in finding the cause and preventing the next needless catastrophe.