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Miami: Symbols of Human Ingenuity and Ambition Wrecked by Wrathful Nature

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 10:  A crane tower is seen after part of it collapsed from the winds of Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on Sunday, lashing the state with 130 mph winds as it moves up the coast.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A crane tower is seen after part of it collapsed from the winds of Hurricane Irma on Sunday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Miami’s cranes, the towering symbols of South Florida growth, are collapsing.

The city dodged a bullet when Irma tilted toward Florida’s southwest coast, but even 125 miles from the eye of the storm, the surge from Biscayne Bay turned Brickell streets into rivers. Gusts of nearly 100 miles per hour whipped palm trees back and forth like reeds.

Sunday morning, a crane atop a 25-story downtown rental building called Vice came apart in the wind. The boom is hanging off the tower by a cable; the counterweight has fallen at least a story through the building’s interior.

Later in the afternoon, another crane collapsed, this one two miles north on top of the Gran Paraiso, a luxury condo building under construction in Edgewater. Video showed the boom dangling next to the mast. No one has been injured.

The city’s two-dozen construction cranes were a known hazard. On Tuesday, the deputy director of Miami’s Building Department Maurice Pons warned residents not to stay in buildings next to construction sites with cranes during the storm.

Why isn’t taking down construction cranes part of Miami hurricane prep? There just wasn’t enough time: “Streets have to be closed, another crane has to be brought in,” the city manager told a local radio station. That can take five to six days per crane, and in a booming city like Miami, cranes need to be reserved in advance. The prospect of doubling the city’s crane count to disassemble all the construction sites just wasn’t realistic.

So they focused on minimizing the damage instead. “These tower cranes are designed to withstand winds up to 145 miles per hour,” Pons said in his statement. Building cranes’ booms are usually fixed at 67-degree angles before a storm but left to rotate in the wind like a weather vane.

Clearly, though, some were not designed for that kind of wind. One reason why? In 2008, Miami-Dade passed a law to require construction cranes in the county to withstand 145-mile winds. It was overturned by federal appeals court after a challenge from the construction industry, which argued that crane regulation was a workplace issue and not a matter of public safety.

Miami isn’t the only city wrestling with crane regulation. When Superstorm Sandy hit New York, high winds left a 26,000-pound boom dangling from the top of a 74-story building whose penthouse sold for $95 million. The building engineer later told the New York Times he thought the boom had an 80 percent chance of falling onto the busy street below, and the blocks around the site were under evacuation for several days.

Four years later, a crawler crane (mounted from a truck, not on top of a building) collapsed in New York during a blizzard, killing a 38-year-old man. The city reacted with strict new rules that the construction industry said were onerous and would grind work to a halt, driving up construction costs (and by extension, housing costs).

Miami’s downtown residential boom is one of the few real urban revival stories in the U.S. Nearly all that growth has occurred since Hurricane Andrew in 1992; there are some signs that, despite post-Andrew revisions to the state’s building code, Miami’s high-rise architecture wasn’t quite ready for a storm like this.

And yet. Those cranes may be symbols of the folly of human settlement in South Florida, but they represent a very anomalous piece of the city. And one that is, all told, a slightly more sustainable proposition for life in the flood zone than the barely reclaimed swampland that constitutes much of South Florida’s urban development.