The tragedy at Champlain Towers in Surfside Florida is both a cautionary tale and a pattern that is sadly familiar. We see this pattern of blissful ignorance in America’s refusal to invest resources in infrastructure and in our unwillingness to face painful scientific facts ranging from COVID-19 to climate change. We are willing to enjoy the benefits of modern technology, but we are unwilling to pay the costs incurred due to the negative impacts of that technology. Global travel accelerated the spread of COVID-19. So too did the unwillingness of government to heed the early warnings of public health experts. Climate change is partially responsible for the western heatwave, and yet most Republican members of our Congress refuse to invest in decarbonization.
Engineers and members of the Champlain Towers condo board recognized the need for urgent repairs, but residents would not or could not pay the additional costs of those repairs. Building a tower of steel and concrete by the ocean is an invitation to corrosion. We have the technology to build these towers, but scientific fact tells us that they require regular maintenance and investment. Government rules that require inspections every forty years are woefully inadequate in an era of climate-induced extreme weather. The horrible catastrophe in South Florida is bound to be repeated if we do not learn from it.
In New York City we learned about the need for building inspection from a tragedy that took place over four decades ago. According to Stephen Varone, the President of Rand Engineering:
“While many buildings industry professionals know about the [New York City] facade inspection law, fewer know about the person whose tragic death was behind it. That person was Grace Gold, a 17-year-old freshman student at Barnard College who was killed in 1979 when a loose piece of masonry fell from a building on Broadway and 115th Street. Grace’s death led to the original facade inspection law, New York City’s Local Law 10 of 1980, which required buildings taller than six stories to have their street-facing facades inspected for unsafe conditions every five years by a qualified engineer or architect. The law was amended in 1998 by Local Law 11, which requires any facade taller than six stories, not just those facing a street, to be inspected. The amended law also mandates that at least one street-facing facade be inspected hands on (rather than just visually) from a scaffold or other means of support.”
In this city, building facades and elevators are inspected in large buildings every five years. Boilers are inspected every three years. When facades are repaired street sheds must be built to protect pedestrians. Yes, this raises the costs of living and working in New York. Florida is a far less regulated state and it’s a lot cheaper to live there. New York City is struggling to regain lost population while Florida is growing. In New York, we have learned the hard way to do whatever it takes to eliminate avoidable tragedies. From 9-11 to Hurricane Sandy, we learned that some tragedies are beyond our control. But after Hurricane Sandy we waterproofed our tunnels, reinforced our energy system, and moved critical building systems out of basements along our shoreline. After 9-11, we grew the NYPD’s anti-terror force to about one thousand people. You do what it takes to keep people as safe as possible. That is the irreducible, fundamental function of government. No one likes to pay for public safety, but civilization requires it.
Miami floods whenever the tides are higher than normal. But taxes are low in Florida. Population density is also low and when New York City was being slammed with COVID, Floridians couldn’t understand why we were so willing to give up our freedom of movement and commerce. Florida never shut down and their infection rate seemed lower than New York’s. Their governor won’t allow businesses to require vaccination and he had very little interest in masks and social distancing. To his followers, New Yorkers are simply alarmists and Florida is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Perhaps, but New Yorkers were reacting to the facts in front of us.
We had a rough year, but the Boss is back on Broadway, and Macy’s July 4th fireworks were able to return because New York’s public is 70% vaccinated, and through massive effort, we drove down the rate of infection and death. Still, COVID hit New York City hard and first, sadly before doctors learned how to treat it. As a result, our death rate was 276 people per 100,000 of population. In Florida, the death rate has been 176 per 100,000. Perhaps we had a reason to be alarmed, and perhaps Florida’s approach to COVID was appropriate to their environment. Science is not the only guide to public policy, but willfully ignoring scientific fact can and does lead to avoidable deaths.
The science of building deterioration is not difficult to understand. While a virus is invisible, and climate change is complex, crumbling concrete is not, and “rust never sleeps.” Buildings are vulnerable to weather-induced deterioration. Most homeowners know that roofs can leak, and they often need to be repaired and replaced.
The high-tech world we have created is interconnected and vulnerable to multiple threats. We need to do a better job of measuring and anticipating threats and then investing in the people, systems, and infrastructure we need to stay safe. The conditions on Florida’s shoreline are different from those in the middle of Kansas. But each place has its own exposure to natural and human-made threats. Ignoring them and hoping they go away invites tragedy. The rules governing our built environment should be reasonable but should be designed to reduce threats and avoid catastrophe.
Government regulation also needs to remove some of the investment decisions from private parties like condominium boards. These boards are amateurs without the expertise to know if an engineering report is accurate or simply a way of marketing engineering services. Government needs to audit these inspectors and must set rules to ensure an adequate state of repair. Government inspectors must be well trained and accountable. The competence of Surfside’s building inspector has been questioned. To manage private building engineers, government must have enough in-house engineering capacity to check their work. This additional capacity will cost money. Some repair work should be ordered by government. That will cost private parties money and will make people unhappy.
But there is no such thing as a free lunch. The bar may give you free food, but they’ll make it back on the price of their drinks. All over America, we see roads, bridges, electrical lines, and mass transit falling into disrepair. We are an entire nation in a cycle of disinvestment more interested in buying big screen TVs than paving roads. We prefer to spend our money on immediate gratification, and we’ve come to believe that someone else should pay the costs of maintaining our collective goods.
The planet itself is the ultimate shared resource. We are damaging it and refusing to adequately invest in earth observation and analysis. We need to do a far better job of understanding our ecosphere and assessing the impact of human technology on the natural and human-made environment. We cannot maintain our way of life if we pretend that these problems do not exist.
The human catastrophe in South Florida is tragic beyond words. We try to make sense of the senseless and struggle to find some meaning in the events that our deity has permitted to transpire. President Biden’s visit with the families of these victims and his engagement with local officials suggested the importance of political and moral leadership and reminded me of this passage from John Kennedy’s inaugural address:
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”
It is time for the political dissembling and delusion to end. Our actions today can prevent tragedy tomorrow. If the Surfside Florida tragedy leads to actions that prevent future catastrophes, these deaths will not have been in vain.
This article was originally published in State of the Planet.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.