Not half a day had passed after the collapse of the south tower of the Champlain Towers complex when speculation began as to what had caused a relatively modern building to suddenly collapse. Charles Burkett, the mayor of Surfside, the Greater Miami coastal municipality where the tragedy occurred, said what many thought: “These things are not supposed to happen in America.” According to experts interviewed by GDA and the local press, the cause may have been a tragic combination of shifting terrain, inadequate construction for the coast, and inadequate laws to address the effects of climate change.
“This could have been avoided,” said Venezuelan architect Mariana Rodríguez, who has advised some condominium boards (formed by the owners to manage the building). The ordinances created to prevent something like this were approved more than 30 years ago, when it was not even thought that we would have such a drastic acceleration of the rise in sea levels and the intensity and frequency of hurricanes ”, he lamented.
A city at warRELATED
The image of Miami is that of a city that lives a constant party. It is not false, but it could not be more incomplete. Miami and all nearby municipalities wage a constant war against nature. It is one of the historical characteristics of an area created thanks to the stubbornness of a group of men who wanted to make their own conquest in the south of the Florida peninsula. Unlike those who went west infected with the gold rush, those who came to Miami instead of digging had to destroy protective mangroves and then fill in. Much of what is now the coastal territory of the city was under the sea or was swamps.
Although visitors do not notice it, nature is an enemy that does not give up. Just one statistic: Between 1950 and 2015, Florida authorities spent $ 1.3 billion “nurturing” the beaches. In other words, buying sand to replace the one that storms take away every year. It is not cheap and you have to get the money from somewhere.
In the late 1960s, Surfside was forced to suspend new construction permits while modernizing its deteriorating sewage system. According to The Miami Herald, in 1979 the company that built the Champlain Towers publicly contributed $ 200,000 to the mayor’s office to fund half of the project, so that it could be completed and started. In fact, it was the first building of more than six stories that was inaugurated in the area.
“That was prior to Hurricane Andrew (1992), which devastated a good part of the city. After that, there were important changes in the laws and building codes, ”Rodríguez recalled. “They did not modify the ordinance of 40 years and it was a pity, but nobody imagined what was coming,” stressed the architect in reference to the 1975 law in the county, which requires that buildings of more than three floors be recertified as “Safe” when reaching four decades.
What was coming and will not come
Between 1993 and 2019 the sea level in southern Florida rose 12.7 centimeters (5 inches) and could reach 15 centimeters more by 2030, warned a study by the Climate Change Compact of the Southeast Florida region, an official body formed by the environmental authorities of the neighboring counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach. The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed the construction in Miami Beach of a six-meter (20-foot) coastal wall, at a cost of $ 6 billion. The situation is so serious that it has been warned that by 2060 40% of Miami could be under water.
Likewise, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal Systems and Beaches published a report in 2019 stating that the entire area along the Atlantic coast is “critically eroded”, which makes it “imperative” to review the situation of the constructions on the beach and the laws for the future.
Like other buildings of the time that stood in front of the beach, the Champlain Towers are built on filled ground. The building plans indicate that the technique used was typical of the time, an artificial concrete base anchored on the limestone bedrock. “It should have endured any kind of movement on the ground,” explained engineer Charles Danger, who was part of the Department of Building Inspections in Dade-County for 26 years, until 2014, and was in charge of enforcing the code changes. after Andrew.
The rescue mission and search for people among the rubble reached 36 uninterrupted hours today since the emergency began. (Fernando Medina)
The Champlain Towers condominium, built in 1980, partially collapsed yesterday, Thursday, in circumstances that are not yet determined. (Fernando Medina)
At the edge of noon on Friday, there were four confirmed deaths from this tragedy and 159 people remained missing. (Fernando Medina)
Relatives, friends and neighbors close to the place came to the beach near the structure to witness the search mission. (Fernando Medina)
At least six Puerto Ricans were among the missing persons, El Nuevo Día learned (Fernando Medina)
Testimonies from people who survived the tragedy establish that a noise was heard before the collapse of the 12-story building. (Fernando Medina)
The authorities reported that as of Friday at noon, only 120 people had been rescued. (Fernando Medina)
Although it did not fully collapse, the end of the condominium that did not collapse was structurally compromised, so it will not be habitable. (Fernando Medina)
Dozens of people remained at the scene during the search and rescue mission to pray for the missing. (Fernando Medina)
After all, the towers had survived more than thirty intense tropical storms and four major hurricanes. The most recent was “Irma” in 2017 and the damage to the beach in Surfside was such that it forced the mayor’s office to hire a “sand lobbyist” to help them raise the funds to fix the problem. In the end, the municipality managed to buy 202.5 cubic tons of sand, equivalent to 1,000 Olympic swimming pools.
The perfect Storm
Some politicians have rejected the possibility that the disaster in Surfside was due to global warming, claiming that if so there would be more buildings in trouble. Unfortunately, the south tower of the Champlain Towers appeared to be particularly vulnerable to the onslaught of the weather due to structural problems.
A study by Florida International University indicates that the towers had sunk two millimeters annually between 1993 and 1999, a rate higher than the rest of the nearby properties. “We don’t know why it happens, but we can detect it via satellite,” said Shimon Wdowinski, one of the researchers. “I don’t think it was what caused the collapse, but it could have contributed.”
In addition, the building was in significant disrepair, with frequent flooding in the parking lot, discoloration and cracks. The problems led the condominium board to hire the firm Morabito Consultants in 2018. In its report, the company warned that it had discovered “abundant chips and cracks of different degrees of depth (…) in the concrete columns, beams and walls” of the garage. He also mentioned “significant damage to the structural concrete slab” of the base on which the pool was (pool, pool). The waterproofing of the areas near the sea was also beaten by those that “had to be completely removed and replaced.”
One of the survivors, who has declined to be named, said the garage was often flooded with salt water, which had everyone concerned. So much so that a neighbor sued in 2015 to speed up the process. By the time of the collapse, homeowners were paying extra fees – a recent one of $ 70,000 or $ 100.00 – as possible – to fund repairs. The budget ranged from $ 8 million to $ 15 million. “We knew there were problems, but no one told us that this could think,” he added. In fact, there is evidence that the condominium board kept the mayor’s office informed at all times. “They were even congratulated for having the initiative before it came to recertification,” the man recalled. The alarm voice never sounded. Even so, the owners had secured a loan to pay for the project, but the building arrangements were delayed by the pandemic. “They were about to start,” he said.
A tragic irony
The increase in vibrations in the area may have been another factor that complicated the situation of the tower. In recent years, tall and luxurious buildings have been erected in the area. Two weeks before the collapse, the Navy warned that it would conduct controlled underwater explosions near Surfside. One of the nearby buildings had been imploded days before, and hours before the tragedy the roof had been drilled with heavy machinery to install a system to clean the windows.
When Surfside was founded in May 1935, the goal was for it to remain almost natural, with the exception of some luxurious buildings such as the still existing Surf Club, where important personalities such as Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner spent long periods of time. and Dean Martin. They succeeded precisely until the construction of the Champlain Towers complex began. The effects of climate change on the beach and the expenses it has generated forced the authorities to issue construction permits to generate higher tax revenues. Without them there is no sand and sea, and without sand and sea there is no tourism. It is a vicious cycle that destroys, repairs, and continues to destroy that original paradise, claiming lives like those of the Surfside tragedy and that may have caused the first great tragedy of climate change.