Surfside Has Changed Everything: Sea Level Rise in Spotlight After Deadly Condo Collapse
By Melea VanOstrand | August 19, 2021
The June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside has caused litigators, real estate and insurance professionals to rethink how they assess risk and liability, causing one of South Florida’s most familiar problems to float to the surface: sea level rise.
While it was a horrific event, Miami managing partner Wayne Pathman of Pathman Schermer Tandy, LLP believes the tragedy was also a wake-up call. He points to the fact that when many of the buildings on Miami’s barrier islands were built 40 years ago, those responsible for their infrastructure weren’t thinking about sea level rise.
“There wasn’t any concern about sea level rise, but now we know better. Today we know that sea level rise can have an impact on existing structures and those in the future as sea levels continue to rise,” Pathman said. “Saltwater is corrosive and as tidal rises more of the substructure will be impacted due to tidal flow.”
Pathman has pushed South Florida developers and politicians to take more initiative on sea level rise, but notes there were likely a number of things that could have caused Champlain Towers South to collapse.
“It may have been faulty construction, failure to repair known damages, impact from neighboring construction, and quite possibly change in tidal flow due to sea level rise,” Pathman said.
Pathman said seawater can be quite abrasive and could impact the substructures of buildings, and the inability to inspect certain areas of a building before a 40-year inspection leaves a vast unknown.
“There may be a shorter time period to perform recertification of buildings. Instead of 40 years, it might be 30 years. Older buildings and buildings closer to the shoreline may need to be inspected more frequently and it may be necessary to examine the integrity of the building and the substructure using ground-penetrating radar,” Pathman said.
As demonstrated by Hurricane Andrew, disasters often result in changes to how structures are built and maintained, so Pathman expects building codes will likely change soon.
Ground-penetrating radars would allow for more in-depth inspections of the substructure, according to Pathman, who said that following the recent collapse, lawyers will likely cast a wide net when seeking damages.
“They might go all the way back to the beginning when the developer and contractor were first involved. Did they follow the code? Who was managing the building? What about the engineer? Who did work on the building post-completion, and government officials who failed to act timely? And ultimately any other contributing parties that the experts feel caused the building to collapse,” Pathman said.
While the courts will determine who has liability, Pathman noted it could stretch to the builder, engineer, contractors, city or homeowner’s association, and insurers will have liability up to their policy limits.
Lenders ‘getting stricter’
Fernando Alvarez of JAG Insurance Group in Coral Gables said that while risk and liability is top of mind now, sea level rise is also a hot topic in the insurance market.
“I’m seeing that more and more with lenders, where lenders are getting much stricter with flood insurance and what their demands are on assets, particularly waterfront assets that are in a flood zone,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez said he believes there will need to be plenty of science and underwriting data on sea level rise, but he doubts that’s a process insurance companies are excited to start.
“It would not be surprising to me if it becomes some type of federal coverage just like FEMA,” Alvarez said. “Until actuaries really have some sort of underwriting procedure, I don’t see how insurance companies are going to charge rates and be able to charge such large rates, until there’s more data. It’s being worked on and it is a topic.”
Developers have started analyzing where they’re building structures with geotechnical reports.
“It’s safe to say that I think some companies are building above elevation. With today’s science and information and building codes, I think long term we’re going to be all right,” Alvarez said.
Doing your part
Scott MacLaren, president of Fort Lauderdale real estate development company Stiles Corp., said builders are doing their bit to help battle rising seas.
“If you’re a homeowner on the Intracoastal and you raise your sea wall two to three feet, you’re doing your part. Your neighbor might not have raised his sea wall yet but eventually will, so you’ve done your part,” said MacLaren.
MacLaren says cities, counties and residents in Florida are looking at infrastructure such as roads, sea walls and protective devices in certain areas of land that will be abandoned in order to protect others from the water.
In downtown Fort Lauderdale, builders of a Stiles project called The Main have been proactive in combating the problem. The building is 18 inches off the sidewalk.
“One day, as streets are raised and as sewers are raised, The Main will be at an advantage to at least have done their part. It’s not stuck now 18 inches below grade as roads are raised,” said MacLaren.
For commercial developers, MacLaren said it’s important to look at what physical changes and proactive decisions can be made now.
“It’s being well read and understanding what your peers are doing and communicating about it instead of putting it out of your head and saying it’s a 100-year issue. It’s communication, education and awareness, and any physical items that you can do to your property,” MacLaren said.
MacLaren is a member of the Urban Land Institute, a large global network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts. He said for organizations such as that, sea level rise is a prevalent topic.
“As a group, our organization has spent years being on the front on resiliency and sea level rise. We’ve been fortunate over the last few years now not to have a major storm event, but people that grew up here really remember some of the bad ones,” MacLaren said. “ULI has really taken a leadership position and is involved in a lot of the conversations. One of the words we use constantly across all of our main themes and topics and priorities is convening people.”
MacLaren said he feels it would be a big step in the right direction if real estate professionals and experts could see the bigger picture and do more to raise roads and enlarge underground sewers.
Although many changes made to combat sea level rise will be gradual, there are things that can be done now to address immediate safety concerns.
As Pathman sees it, what we’ve learned from the tragedy in Surfside is that condo owners, government officials, building departments, attorneys, contractors and others must never take anything for granted. That means if they see something that they believe is wrong with a building, they should report it, according to Pathman, who said engineering reports and any related information should be taken seriously and repairs should then begin immediately.