In Brief

The Miami tower collapse: a tragedy in slow motion

‘The search for answers is not moving nearly fast enough’

“It’s the abruptness – the suddenness – that appals,” said Leonard Pitts Jr. in the Miami Herald. At 1.23am on 24 June, most of the residents of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Miami Beach, would have been fast asleep. And then, bang, part of the 12-storey apartment complex sheared off, burying more than 100 people.

Since then, it has become “a tragedy in slow motion”. The rescue effort has turned into a laborious recovery effort; the death toll is creeping up, slowly but inexorably. The authorities are pleading for patience as they investigate the cause of the disaster, but “the search for answers is not moving nearly fast enough to keep pace with the all-too-human need to know”.

In the absence of a definitive explanation, people have pushed their own partisan narratives, said Jim Geraghty in National Review. The collapse is down to “deregulation”, they claim, or to climate change.

All we can really say at this stage, however, is that the early evidence points to a failure at or near the base of the tower, possibly exacerbated by tremors from nearby building work. In 2018, an engineer reported “abundant” cracking in the columns, beams and walls of the underground garage beneath the complex.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A makeshift memorial for victims of the collapse

We can’t blame a “greedy landlord” for failing to act on that report, said Megan McArdle in The Washington Post. It was the residents’ association that resisted making the costly repairs. But that doesn’t mean they’re to blame either. Although the 2018 report “now reads as a horrifying prophecy”, experts say its findings were fairly typical and not an obvious red flag.

Building standards are not always up to scratch in Florida, said Amy Davidson Sorkin in The New Yorker, but we may be nearing a point in the south of the state where even the best-constructed buildings are under threat. A coastal city built on porous limestone, Miami is “beset not only by rising sea levels but also by water seeping in from below”. Intense hurricanes have become more frequent.

The combination of climate change and infrastructure decay poses a challenge to Florida–and to the US as a whole. In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its quadrennial report on the state of US infrastructure, and gave it a C-minus. It identified more than 46,000 “structurally deficient” bridges. We may not know yet why the Surfside tower fell down, “but we know that others will”.

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