Metropolis

The Miami Building Collapse Is a Warning

Waiting to trace the exact lines of causation misses the point.

Rescue workers on a green crane stand above the wreckage of a partially collapsed building in Surfside north of Miami Beach, Florida.
Rescue workers on a crane stand above the wreckage of a partially collapsed building in Surfside north of Miami Beach, Florida, on Friday. Eva Marie Uzcateguie/Getty Images

When I saw Thursday morning that a condominium building had partially collapsed near Miami Beach, the first question I had wasn’t if anyone had died (that was second), but to wonder why the building had collapsed in the first place. Really, it was to wonder if a building collapsing in Miami would be investigated as a potentially climate change–related disaster.

The on-the-ground details have only become more horrific as time has passed. At least four people are dead and as many as 159 are still not accounted for. First responders continue to search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South. Charles W. Burkett, the mayor of Surfside, the community where the 12-story building is located, told CNN on Thursday morning, “This is a horrific catastrophe. In the United States, buildings just don’t fall down.” That had certainly been my impression as well.

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There was construction happening on top of the building when it began crashing down, and it had just begun being inspected as part of an every-40-years certification process. Officials say they don’t know yet if either factor had something to do with it. But I can’t help but return to the maps of the building’s location: While the Champlain Towers South wasn’t immediately on the coast, it sat on a thin barrier island flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Biscayne Bay on the other.

While authorities are understandably trying to frame Thursday’s collapse as a unique and freak accident, a few options have been raised about what possibly went wrong. Peter Dyga, president and CEO of a Florida chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, told the Miami Herald that investigators would be looking into numerous factors, including the building’s architectural plans, construction materials, and maintenance records. “This is going to be probably multiple years in trying to figure out what happened here. There are so many variables,” he told the Herald. “It’s probably more than likely going to be a combination of bad things.” Burkett told a local TV news station that “he couldn’t imagine any reason for the tragedy other than if a sinkhole occurred or someone pulled the supports out of the building.” The vice president of a construction company explained to another local news station why Florida is a particularly difficult place to build—if steel gets exposed to salt or chlorides, it can corrode; if soil subsides, it can affect the foundation and overall structure of a building.

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Pretty soon, however, news stories started to assess possible connections between climate change and the collapse. The Washington Post reports that “experts on sea level rise and climate change caution that it is too soon to speculate if rising seas helped destabilize the oceanfront condo,” and then goes on to explain all of the things we already do know that feel quite relevant: Miami is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise—some estimates in Miami suggest it’s seen a foot of rise in the past century, half of that coming since the 1990s—and sea-level rise in limestone is a particularly worrisome combination (because the water goes through instead of being held back, which can exacerbate corrosion). The Palm Beach Post sorts through the same issues, with various experts weighing in from various directions about the most likely culprits. Some think sea level rise and its corrosive effects might have played a role, others are more inclined to suggest it was the crane on the roof that might have been a bigger factor. The experts largely dismiss sinkholes as a possible cause because they’re less prevalent in the immediate area, though for what it’s worth, a paper published in the Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences in 2018 looked specifically at climate change’s effect on sinkholes in Florida and concluded that “for every 0.1°C rise in global temperature, the number of sinkholes increases by 1%–3%.”

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I certainly don’t have any special information that investigators on the ground in Surfside don’t have about why the Champlain Towers South collapsed. Maybe it had something to do with a sinkhole or corrosion and maybe that sinkhole or corrosion had something to do with climate change, or maybe it didn’t. Maybe its decisive cause was some as-yet-unidentified flaw in the building. But reading about how climate change might exacerbate some of the very factors we might otherwise chalk up to “structural integrity” made me think that in the same way extreme weather has caused us to rethink our ideas about 100-year floods, it may be time to rethink the timelines for building reinspections when those buildings sit on particularly climate-sensitive land. It brought to mind a passage from Sarah Miller’s disturbing and precise piece in Popula about the future of Miami’s inevitably doomed real estate, “Heaven or High Water”:

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Since Miami is built on limestone, which soaks up water like a sponge, walls are not very useful. In Miami, sea water will just go under a wall, like a salty ghost. It will come up through the pipes and seep up around the manholes. It will soak into the sand and find its way into caves and get under the water table and push the ground water up. So while walls might keep the clogs of Holland dry, they cannot offer similar protection to the stilettos of Miami Beach.

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All of this feels related to another conversation that is going on right now, but which has also plagued us for years and years: How much do we really need to know about precise lines of cause and effect to be able to say that the way that we are living on this planet is having catastrophic effects? This question is relevant at the moment because much of the American West is experiencing extreme high temperatures and drought, both of which are exacerbated and made worse by climate change. Wildfires this year are already extreme and expected to get worse, also because of climate change.

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Yet many journalists are still reluctant to point out the connection between these extreme events and climate change, maybe not so much to downplay the crisis but more out of a desire to respect expertise and to make sure they’re really getting things right. Emily Atkin, who writes the fantastic climate crisis–focused newsletter Heated, wrote about this phenomenon earlier this week, citing a conversation she’d had in 2018 with an NPR editor who emphasized the importance of talking to climate scientists before making a connection to climate change in their reporting. In the case of, say, heat waves, this is a pretty cautious approach, but the thing that gets me the most about it is just how much we get hung up on nailing these exact lines of causation in the first place. If the point is that heat waves and hurricanes and wildfires and flooding will be made worse by climate change—and any climate scientist will tell you that, any day of the week—does it really matter if it affected this one? A major issue here is the way that science and journalism move at profoundly opposing paces, a lesson we all should have learned during this pandemic if nothing else. When I wrote about Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma back in 2017, a scientist I interviewed told me that it would likely take a year before research could say if Irma—a hurricane primarily distinguished by its strength as opposed to its precipitation—was exacerbated by climate change. That’s the same range of timeline we’re looking at with the building collapse.

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What has happened this week in Florida is horrifying, and in reading much of the coverage about it, there is a sense from local officials that they are doing their absolute best to make sure that people don’t feel panicked—that residents don’t feel they have to abandon their homes right now. And ultimately, that’s why journalists are so cautious about cause and effect—telling people what to worry about and to what degree is an enormous responsibility. No one wants to get it wrong. We don’t want to scare people for no reason. And maybe we’ll find out that there was something else dramatically wrong with the building, and it didn’t collapse because of climate change after all. But I think we know enough right now to say that there is a material and physical crisis facing buildings in Miami. We know that we should feel more urgency to do something about the problem facing the people who live there.

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Ultimately, what upsets me most about the collapse is the immediate death, the count of which is sure to grow. But I also am disturbed that my brain wrapped around this horrific event by jumping a few steps further into the future, into a world where building collapses are just another thing that journalists cautiously acknowledge as catastrophes that might be exacerbated by climate change, but we end up just dealing with them, just like we have learned to deal with the heat waves and the fires and the droughts and the hurricanes. The water is already boiling. We’re just getting more accustomed to treating the burns.

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