More than two weeks ago, in the early hours of June 24th, a twelve-story apartment building in Surfside, Florida collapsed. After a methodical, dangerous search for survivors hampered by bad weather, Florida officials finally canceled the rescue mission on Wednesday (July 7) confirming 60 people were killed, 11 injured and at least 80 were missing. The Champlain Towers tragedy is one of the “deadliest building collapses with mass casualties in US history”.
Although several experts have given opinions, the root cause of the incident remains a mystery to city officials, and many have wondered about the structural integrity of the buildings they live and work in beyond the beach community.
Ron Stupi, senior vice president of 200-year-old building certification company Bureau Veritas, believes the root of the problem is largely philosophical. “We Americans tend to invest in new things. Refurbishing a bridge or building doesn’t bring much fame because it looks the same at the end of the day, ”he explains. “People like to see what their money is being spent on. Obviously, inspecting or repairing something doesn’t have the glamor of revealing a brand new structure. “
Reuters / Marco Bello
View of the partially collapsed residential home in Surfside, Florida.
America’s failing infrastructure
While there were several structural flaws in the U.S., many found it hard to believe that a building could suddenly collapse, as it did at Surfside. This optimism deepens the inertia towards routine building maintenance. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave aging infrastructure a pathetic grade C. The organization’s latest report says that an underground water pipe bursts every two minutes; 43% of the US public roads are in poor condition, and 7% of the bridges that are still used by millions of commuters every day are “structurally poor”.
Stupi says the complacency about structural maintenance is manifested even in the behavior of American homeowners who only have their home properly checked when they are ready to sell it. He believes it will take a disaster the size of Surfside to show the benefits of routine inspections and repairs.
“It’s just a tough lesson. Can something like that really fall off? [We now know that] The answer is yes, it could, ”he says. “Unfortunately, people don’t take it that seriously until tragedy happens.” In contrast to elevators or cars, which have to be checked and serviced regularly, there is no uniform regulation for buildings in the USA.
Trevor Birchett / Creative Commons
Engineers found a crack in the Hernando de Soto Bridge between West Memphis, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee
One way forward
But it’s not all bad news. In May, inspectors discovered a jump in time at the Hernando de Soto Bridge, which connects Arkansas and Tennessee. Officials promptly closed the 3-mile bridge over the Mississippi to make the necessary repairs, and it is expected to reopen later this month.
“This is an example when a routine inspection took place and the structural engineer broached the problem sufficiently and the authorities heard it,” says Stupi. “You treated it with all due seriousness.”