Florida's Surfside disaster: past flooding could be reason for building collapse

Experts are baffled by the collapse of a high-rise which was undergoing safety inspections

From sinkholes to concrete-weakening saltwater intrusion, theories abound on what caused a Florida beachside condominium tower to collapse without warning.

The Champlain Towers South building in the town of Surfside was in the middle of its 40-year recertification process, which requires detailed structural and electrical inspections.

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We need a definitive answer for how this might have happened

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said on Friday that he was not sure if the inspection had been completed. He suggested it may contain vital clues to the deadly disaster.

“It should have been a very straightforward thing,” Mr Burkett said. “Buildings in America do not just fall down like this. There is a reason. We need to find out what that reason is.”

The 12-storey tower’s collapse left at least four people dead, 159 missing as of Friday and numerous questions about how this could have happened – and whether other similar buildings are in danger.

Details of the Champlain Towers recertification inspection will be made public once they are completed, Surfside Town Clerk Sandra McCready said.

The engineer involved in the building’s recertification process, Frank Morabito, did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on Friday that she saw no evidence of a sinkhole – much more common in other parts of Florida – or of something criminal, such as a bomb.

“I can tell you that at this time, they haven’t found any evidence of foul play,” she said.

Beyond that, much focus is on ocean water, which is rising in South Florida and elsewhere because of climate change.

Last year, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that would require developers to complete sea-level rise studies before beginning publicly funded projects.

Like everyone else, the governor wants answers about the cause of the collapse as soon as possible.

“We need a definitive answer for how this might have happened,” Mr DeSantis said. “It really is a unique type of tragedy to have, in the middle of the night, half a building just collapse like that.”

Subsidence 

Meanwhile, the land on which Champlain Towers sits has been gradually sinking, according to a study published last year by an environmental professor at Florida International University.

But the professor, Shimon Wdowinski, cautioned against blaming the collapse on the caving ground. The study used satellite data collected between 1993 to 1999 to examine the sinking of land in Norfolk, Virginia and Miami Beach.

Mr Wdowinski said his study found numerous examples of sinking earth, some leading to cracks in buildings – which he called “pretty common” in Florida.

“In most cases, these buildings just move,” he said, “there’s no catastrophic collapse like in the case in Surfside, which was very unfortunate.”

Another theory is that the saltwater in the area, which is subject to flooding during so-called King Tide events, intrudes into concrete supports, corrodes the steel-reinforcing rebar inside and weakens the concrete.

Regular flooding 

Abi Aghayere, an engineering researcher at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, said determining if there was such deterioration could be one key to the collapse.

“Did a column fail by itself? This column has been carrying this load for 40 years, why would it fail now?” said Mr Aghayere, adding that it is rare for rebar to be corroded without anyone noticing. “You will have concrete popping out, falling out.”

Others have referred to frequent flooding in the building’s lower parking garage, including the possibility of water seeping up through the porous limestone rock on which the barrier island sits that includes Surfside and Miami Beach.

Surfside officials say roof work was taking place at the now-collapsed tower and have downplayed the possibility that work was a cause.

Barry Cohen, a lawyer who escaped the Champlain Towers building with his wife, said the roof work could be part of a “perfect storm” of causes that combined to bring down the structure.

“They were doing a new roof. And I think, all day long, the building was pounding and pounding and pounding. They’ve been doing it for over a month,” Mr Cohen said.

Another issue cited by some people is construction at a nearby building that might cause vibrations that weakened Champlain Towers. Mr Cohen said he raised concerns previously that the work was possibly causing cracked pavers on the pool deck.

The collapse is already drawing lawsuits, including one filed hours after the collapse by lawyer Brad Sohn against the building's homeowners association. This seeks damages for negligence and other reasons for all of the tower’s residents.

The association, the lawsuit contends, “could have prevented the collapse of Champlain Towers South through the exercise of ordinary care, safety measures and oversight”.

A lawyer for the association, Ken Direktor, did not respond Friday to an email requesting comment.

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