Searching for life, and answers, in the Surfside building collapse | Editorial
Buildings don’t just fall down. Florida needs to find out why.
Crews work in the rubble of Champlain Towers South residential condo on Tuesday in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Crews work in the rubble of Champlain Towers South residential condo on Tuesday in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 29
Updated Jun. 29

Rescuers are still searching for any signs of life six days after a 12-story oceanfront condo collapsed near Miami, leaving 11 people confirmed dead and 150 missing. As first responders continue their painstaking work, government and relief agencies need to care for the family and friends of those lost, and quickly turn their attention to answering what happened, in the hopes of preventing another tragedy.

Crews continued to search the rubble Wednesday of Champlain Towers South, in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, which partially crumbled early Thursday as many residents slept. Hundreds of trained rescuers worked methodically on and under the rubble pile, braving dangerous conditions in a search for survivors as hope and patience grew despairingly thin.

Officials have done a better job in recent days of communicating with friends and family of the victims and explaining the deliberate pace of the rescue effort, which has been hampered by fire, rain and other dangers. It was also good to see a task force from the Tampa Bay area respond, reflecting the skills, readiness and commitment of first responders across our own metropolitan area.

As the search continues, federal, state and local officials are exploring how a tower built only 40 years ago smashed to the ground, given the vast numbers of even older high-rises that pepper our coastal state. In 2018, three years before the collapse, an engineering consultant found “significant” cracking in the stucco exterior and “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck, which unaddressed, he warned, would cause “the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.” The condominium complex had been preparing to recertify the building — a requirement for similar structures in the area that reach 40 years of age — and a multimillion dollar restoration project was about to get underway.

Miami-Dade County was wise Saturday to order an emergency audit of older residential buildings that had fallen behind on inspections. While the county’s rules are among the strictest in the country, not all recertifications are completed on time. It’s important to determine if anything about the design, materials or construction of Champlain Towers raise broad safety concerns. Officials also need to assess whether the maintenance and reporting requirements are robust enough for regulators to do their jobs. And local governments need to be more accountable for timely inspections and for following up on needed repairs.

To that end, a federal agency that specializes in investigating building failures is considering launching only its fifth probe in the last 20 years. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which spent years investigating the 2001 World Trade Center collapse, is uniquely suited to propose major code improvements for the building industry. Investigators also need to examine how the impacts of a warming Earth affect multistory construction in Florida. Rising seas, more severe storms and even sunny-day flooding have changed the dynamics of everyday life in South Florida. The public needs to know whether Champlain Towers was an anomaly or a more generalized risk that must be addressed.

It could take months or years to understand all that contributed to the tower’s collapse. But the victims’ families need to know exactly what happened. And everyone who resides or works in similar buildings needs to have faith in the soundness of engineering in Florida, especially as the climate evolves.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.