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Eleven seconds that changed Miami. Surfside condo collapse forced a South Florida reckoning | Editorial

·6 min read

The mural is almost done now.

Stretching across two vast canvases next to the memorial in Surfside, the Cubist-inspired painting is a jagged expression of grief and horror. The artist, Roberto Marquez, has been working on it for weeks. Now the Champlain Towers South condo site is all but cleared, and the names of the recovered dead have slowed to a tiny, terrible trickle. And he is finishing, too.

“I want this to serve as a witness to what happened here,” the Dallas painter said, painting a line of dark blue near an arm stretched upward from the ruins.

But he has been a witness, too. Working one day in the summer heat, layering the elements of the mural — a clock stopped at the time of the collapse, a crane lifting wreckage, a bunk bed grasped by a child’s hand — he saw a man crouch down, overcome, about midway along the memorial wall.

“It was raining.. He couldn’t stop crying. He just wanted his family back,” Marquez said. The artist tried to say more and shook his head, choked up.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” he said, wiping his eyes and picking up his paintbrush. “I never thought I’d be a grief painter.”

So many of us in South Florida, and far beyond, share that grief. A month ago, the Champlain Towers South condo fell — and changed us forever.

In 11 seconds, caught on video, the collapse shattered our vision of carefree condo life. It wiped out entire families: young children, teachers, entrepreneurs, retirees. It broke hearts as far away as Venezuela and Israel, as flags tucked and tied on the memorial wall attest. It is likely the worst accidental building collapse ever in Florida — and that is certainly how it has felt in Miami.

Rapid changes

That cataclysmic moment altered Surfside’s physical landscape, the skyline now gap-toothed where a 12-story concrete building stood. It has also altered our thinking and spurred change. Our community has embarked on an urgent reassessment of building safety with ramifications beyond its borders. It is a reckoning that, as is becoming increasingly apparent, was long overdue.

Even as we mourn, the changes are already evident. And that is good.

Before Surfside, how many of us knew about high-rise inspections and the 40-year recertification rule in Miami-Dade and Broward counties? Now those things are common knowledge. The collapse made us — citizens and governments — question how we build condos and where, and in what ways our standards for inspection and enforcement need to change to incorporate things such as climate change, starting right now.

These are questions we should have been asking all along, of course. And while there’s no indication that condo buildings are going to start falling down in the wake of Champlain Towers, the system to measure the safety of a building is clearly horribly flawed. Our urgency is not misplaced.

The collapse is reshaping our thinking more broadly, too, about the safety of other old buildings — not just on the coast but also inland, and not just condos. In this alarming, post-Surfside context, Miami-Dade shuttered much of its historic downtown courthouse, built in 1928, after engineers determined that floors 16 and above might be unsafe.

There was no question about the efficacy of the closure. Inconveniences, no matter how severe, pale in comparison to a death toll.

The Champlain Towers disaster also has reframed what it means to live in a condo. It reminded condo owners and would-be buyers — and taught those who missed the fine print in their purchase contract — that they have responsibilities for building maintenance if they choose communal living. Condo fees are not just an annoyance; they’re also how you make sure your building is properly cared for. Attending condo-board meetings can’t be something left to a vocal few.

A new climate

Governments, not known for moving quickly, have scrambled to react. Within days, many communities had launched their own building reviews. A few people had to evacuate for their own safety. Again, that had to happen and it happened fast, heartening proof that governments, unified in this dark moment, can actually work for the public good, and in record time.

In this new climate, when problems are discovered, things actually change. After the Miami Herald Editorial Board pointed out that Champlain Towers unit owners would still be sent TRIM notices in August — estimates of the property taxes they would owe on a building that is no longer there — the governor and the county property appraiser’s office figured out ways to offer relief within a matter of days. It was a humane, common-sense move. Many of those owners didn’t make it out.

The ripples from the collapse will go on and on. Insurance companies, real-estate agents, city commissions, lawyers, condo associations, building inspectors, structural engineers — all are affected. Jobs will change because of this. So will laws.

The Hurricane Andrew comparison has been made over and over, but it is an apt one. Just as Andrew in 1992 became the measure by which we evaluated hurricane construction, the fall of Champlain Towers South is fast becoming the bright red line on building safety, in Miami and in communities far distant. In 2021, we’re learning about land subsidence and concrete spalling and condo boards that don’t have enough money in reserve funds for renovations. No one wants another Champlain Towers.

Public pressure for change is great, as it should be. Condo associations are being flooded with questions and requests for documentation about building maintenance. Miami-Dade County’s Unsafe Structures Board has come under new scrutiny. A Miami-Dade grand jury is investigating the building’s failure, as the Editorial Board proposed two days after the collapse. So is the federal agency that probed the fall of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 2001. The Florida Bar will make recommendations to the Legislature for changes in laws, the county is doing its own review and so are individual towns.

Get started

The list of things that need to change is growing. There will be more, but here some of the most important, so far:

Only Miami-Dade and Broward counties even have 40-year certifications of buildings. As the Editorial Board has said, that must change to a statewide requirement, and inspections must happen more frequently, depending on the location and construction methods of the building. The reviews may need to be broadened to look beyond basic structural and electrical repairs. Seawalls and climate change might be a place to start.

Condo owners don’t always have full access to their building’s finances. That must be provided — to them, to renters and to potential buyers. Safety must trump secrecy. Local governments should be notified of any serious issues that engineers find and have the tools to make sure fixes are done.

State and federal governments should consider low-cost, government-backed loans to help homeowners pay for costly but critical repairs in condos, so the work is not delayed. Or governments could create a fund where associations could borrow money to complete structural repairs.

The Legislature must revisit its bad decision in 2010 to repeal a law that required condo associations to conduct “reserve studies” every five years to determine how much money must be set aside to pay for looming repairs.

The lessons of the Surfside condo collapse are hard ones for all of us — family members and survivors first, of course, but also the rest of us: citizens, government officials, artists. For the sake of all we lost on June 24, Miami-Dade must lead the way to tougher standards, for everyone’s sake.

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