Miami’s Climate Dystopia Gets Real
By Jeff Goodell | June 30, 2021
Before it fell, Champlain Towers South, the 12-story Florida condo building that collapsed last week in the middle of the night, burying residents in a pile of concrete and chaos, was just another nondescript high-rise on the beach. It had been thrown up quickly during the go-go years of the 1980s, when the deregulation of the savings and loan industry sparked a red-hot building boom in Miami. Forty years later, it was showing its age, not just in its clunky, vaguely Soviet design, but in the faded, weather-beaten look that old concrete structures get after they have been too long exposed to salty water and wind.
I know this because I used to walk by it every day. A few years ago, when I was in Miami researching and reporting The Water Will Come, a book about the risks and consequences of sea level rise, I rented a room in a house not far from Surfside, a quiet community just north of the city of Miami Beach. To clear my head, I often walked on the beach in front of Champlain Towers South. I never gave the building much thought, beyond what I think anytime I see a building close to the shore in South Florida: Someday in the not-so-distant future, this is all going to be underwater.
At the time, my eye was drawn more to a neighboring building, Eighty Seven Park, a luxurious new 20-story condo tower designed by star-architect Renzo Piano that was then under construction. The building looks like a series of platforms floating above the water, with lots of glass for spectacular views of the Atlantic (the 25,000-square-foot penthouse at the top later sold for $37 million). I used to poke my nose into the construction site and marvel at the concrete pilings and beams that were being installed to support the structure. I am not an engineer, but it looked pretty sturdy to me.
And it still does. Looking at pictures of Champlain Towers South now, after the collapse, I see a terrible juxtaposition between the two buildings: One is a pile of rubble, infused with shock and pain and grief, and the other a sleek tower where not even a beach chair looks out of place.
As of today, there are 18 confirmed deaths in the Champlain Towers South collapse; 145 people are still unaccounted for. The rescue effort has been exceedingly dangerous and complex. The search was paused this morning when engineers detected movement in the remaining structure and feared it too could collapse. President Biden and First Lady Jill made a low-key visit to the site, where they were briefed on rescue efforts and met with families and first responders. “We’re letting the nation know we can cooperate,” Biden said, flanked by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “When it’s really important … This is life and death.”
In Miami, even life-and-death events turn out to be, in the end, all about real estate. Or to put it another way, your fate can be shaped by where you can afford to live. A few weeks ago, a 1,000-square-foot apartment at Eighty Seven Park was going for $2 million. In contrast, a one-bedroom condo at the Champlain Tower South could be had for about $550,000 (and up).
Both buildings had the same view. But Champlain Tower South was cheaper because it was old, and the windows weren’t as big, and the underground parking lot was often flooded, and most important of all, in the Miami hierarchy of things, it didn’t have the cache of being built by a starchitect like Renzo Piano. Still, it was a nice place. It was on the water. It was close to both downtown Miami Beach and the shopping mall in Bal Harbour.
But many of the people who lived in Champlain Tower South didn’t have a lot of money to throw around. You can see this in the careful tone of a letter Jean Wodnicki, the president of the Champlain Towers South condo association, wrote to residents a few months before the collapse, telling them that work was about to begin on the “major structural damage” that had been revealed in an inspection back in 2018, which included “abundant” cracking and spalling of the columns, beams, and walls in the parking garage under the tower. Wodnicki warned residents that damage was “accelerating” and “would begin to multiply exponentially” in coming years. Total cost for the repairs: $15 million. Depending on the size of their condo, the bill for each resident could run between $80,000 and $200,000. That may be what some Miami Beach neighbors spend on a new handbag, but for most people, it’s a lot of money.
The condo association fought for months about when to start the repairs and how to finance it. “People were quitting, and there were new people, and there was all kinds of stuff that was going on that was not pleasant,” Max Friedman, a former member of the board, told The New York Times.
In Surfside, as well as in Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County, all buildings must be inspected and re-certified when they are 40 years old. It’s not a tough test, but an engineer has to sign off on the structural integrity of a place before the city will re-certify the building. Many residents had seen cracks around the pool area and were spooked by the water in the parking garage, but it’s a fine line between “we should get this fixed” and “if we don’t get this fixed, the building may collapse.” And trusted government officials weren’t much help.
Indeed, a month after the 2018 engineer’s report had flagged “major structural damage” at Champlain Towers South, the chief building official for the town of Surfside told residents the condominium was “in very good shape.”
In an eerie sort of way, the debate about fixing the building was a lot like the debate about fixing our climate: It’s all too easy to kick the can down the road, to minimize the scale of the risk we face, and to believe that even urgent warning signs can be ignored because, after all, buildings don’t just suddenly fall down and cities don’t just suddenly become uninhabitable, right?
About 3,000 years ago, a sandbar began to form off the Florida coast. It grew into a small barrier island, which quickly became a dense tangle of mangrove and palmetto, rattlesnakes, rats, and mosquitoes. In the 1890s, a few pioneers cleared the land and planted coconut and avocado trees. A wooden bridge was built to the mainland, and before long, Carl Fisher, a madman entrepreneur who was convinced he could make millions selling this swampland to beach-crazed northerners, arrived to transform the farms and mangroves into a sunny paradise.
It worked. In 1916, Fisher’s company sold $40,000 worth of real estate; nine years later, in 1925, the company sold nearly $24 million. The whole DNA of Miami was – and has always been – about making a quick buck in real estate. Since the 1920s, there have been booms, busts, hurricanes, and hardship. A few weak building codes were passed in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, but basically until 2000, when tough new building regulations were implemented in the aftermath of the widespread destruction of Hurricane Andrew, developers have always run the show in Miami. As the Miami Herald editorial board put it in a tough editorial a few days after the collapse: “South Florida’s long and sordid history of shoddy building practices is hard to ignore in the wake of the Surfside building’s partial collapse.”
When I was reporting The Water Will Come, I learned that it was common practice for builders to cut costs by using beach sand to mix their concrete. Beach sand in Miami is, of course, everywhere. The problem is that beach sand is salty, and salt is corrosive to the steel rebar used to strengthen concrete. Over time, the steel rusts out and the concrete turns to powder. What this means, in practical terms, is that there are a lot of old buildings in Miami that might look good on the outside, but inside, they are barely standing. “It’s like cancer in the building, eating it from the inside,” says one developer.
While renovating a South Beach hotel, one architect I know discovered the structural walls were so weak you could practically knock them down with a hammer. A lawyer involved in redevelopment of an old structure on 5th Street told me the concrete wall was so soft that he could reach into it and grab a handful of sand.
No one has suggested that mixing concrete with beach sand is what caused the collapse of Champlain Towers South. But it does suggest that there may be a
lot of other buildings out there that are vulnerable. In Miami, anything built before the 1970s is suspect. According to Condo Vultures Realty, a website and consulting firm that tracks development in Miami, more than a third of the 139 condo towers in Miami-Dade County were built between 1930 and 1979.
The quality of rebar used in concrete construction in Florida is a problem. It has long been known that salt water is corrosive to the steel rebar that gives concrete its strength. A small crack in the concrete can allow salt water to get into the rebar; as it rusts, the rebar expands, further cracking the concrete and letting more water in. This process is the engine of destruction for many coastal buildings, and was noted to be happening at Champlain Towers South in the 2018 engineering report.
There is a simple fix for this problem: use zinc-coated rebar, which is roughly 30 times better at resisting corrosion. So why not require it in all buildings? “The builders argue it is too expensive,” one architect tells me.
“How much does it add to the overall price of a project?” I ask.
“Oh, not much. Maybe one percent.”
Here is a microcosm of why Miami is in so much trouble: Developers fight any requirement that might make their buildings safer in the long run because, by raising prices one percent, it takes money out of their pockets today.
During the highest tides of the year, known as king tides, the streets of Miami Beach regularly flood. Underground parking garages become aquariums. Parks become lakes. The city has spent millions improving drainage, elevating buildings, and installing a network of pumps. But the water keeps coming. And due to the amount of heat that is already stored in the oceans because of global warming, no matter how aggressive we are at cutting carbon pollution, it will keep coming for many decades, if not centuries.
But in Miami, which is built on a porous limestone plateau, the water doesn’t just come on top. It also intrudes from below, literally rising up through the limestone bedrock. As sea levels rise, that bubble of underground salt water gets bigger and bigger, pushing into the fresh water aquifers. Drinking wells go salty (a big problem in many coastal areas, including places like Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands). And buildings that once had concrete substructures that were exposed to fresh groundwater now are exposed to corrosive salt water.
Could this have had an impact on the Champlain Tower collapse? That’s something that investigators will surely explore. But given the reported eyewitness accounts of the pool area collapsing first, it is pretty clear that something happened in the substructure that then spread to the rest of the building.
Salt-water corrosion of the substructure is certainly a strong possibility, given the corrosion that the 2018 engineering report found throughout the rest of the building. Some media reports have highlighted a study that showed the area around Champlain Towers was subsiding, i.e. sinking, which could have added stress to the building. But Youssef Hachem, a prominent structural engineer in Miami, discounts this: “Buildings like the Champlain Towers are supported by pilings that go 60 feet down into the bedrock,” he explains. “A few millimeters of subsidence in the mud above the bedrock is inconsequential.”
Another possibility, raised to me by another structural engineer, is that the vibration from pounding pilings into the ground during the construction of Eighty Seven Park damaged the substructure of the Champlain Towers South. Anyone who has been around when pilings are pounded knows the tremendous amount of vibration they send through the ground. If the pilings at Champlain Towers were already in fragile shape due to corrosion, it’s not hard to see how this might be a factor (construction crews often install vibration monitors to check this, but damage from vibration varies widely depending on the type and strength of materials subjected to it). Right now, there is no direct evidence this happened. When I ask Hachem, he says, “It’s possible it had an effect. To what extent, you do not know.” But if the building of Eighty Seven Park did turn out to have an impact on the structural integrity of Champlain Towers South, it would be a particularly tragic example of how the safety and privilege of the superrich directly impacted the health and safety of the not-so-superrich.
Wayne Pathman, a lawyer in Miami Beach who has long pushed South Florida developers and politicians to take more dramatic action on sea level rise, compares the collapse of the Champlain tower to Hurricane Andrew. “Just as Andrew led to a new, tougher building code, this collapse is going to bring big changes in how we inspect and certify buildings.”
In Pathman’s view, there will be a much tougher re-certification process for old buildings, as well as a requirement to inspect the substructure of all buildings, perhaps by using ground-penetrating radar, sonar, or other high-tech equipment. The city of Miami Beach, whose northern border is just feet from the collapse site in Surfside, is not waiting for building owners to file engineering reports and has already begun doing visual inspections of the 507 buildings in the city that currently require 40-year recertifications. After the collapse, the city of Miami’s building department also announced it will request citywide inspections of all buildings six stories or taller that are 40 years or older.
But identifying risky buildings is just the beginning of the kind of changes that are needed. What happens when buildings are found to be at risk but the occupants don’t have the money to fix things? Is the county or the city going to throw them out in the street? What kind of new disclosure laws will be passed, so that duplicitous owners don’t try to sell vulnerable buildings to even more vulnerable people? Are Miami politicians and civic leaders going to require developers to build more safe, secure, affordable housing for people who are now living in dangerous conditions?
The truth is, when people are forced to choose between living in a risky building and paying for repairs that are going to bankrupt them, they will live in a risky building. And as seas rise and more buildings are subjected to stresses they were never built to handle, this is only going to become a more urgent problem. In Miami, as in most cities, there is no foresight to prepare for what is coming, no real plan for a managed retreat from high risk areas, no deliberate effort to get vulnerable people out of harm’s way in the midst of the rapidly accelerating climate crisis. Some South Florida politicians will undoubtedly use this tragedy as an opportunity to boost a recent $6 billion proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a giant sea wall across Biscayne Bay. But that proposal is its own kind of disaster, and won’t address the problems revealed by the collapse of Champlain Towers South.
This is not a moment to be cynical, but you could almost argue that letting old buildings deteriorate is a deliberate (if unspoken) strategy of business and political leaders in Miami. After all, there is a lot more profit in erecting a new Renzo Piano tower than there is in patching up an old box by some architect no one has ever heard of. Some urban planners have even argued to me, off-the-record, that the only way a place like Miami will survive in the coming decades is by bulldozing old, rotting, at-risk buildings and rebuilding newer, stronger, higher. The faster it happens, the better, they argue. But left to the free market, that’s a recipe for climate dystopia, a world where the rich live in new protected fortresses and everyone else is hoping they make it through the night in a rusty old tear-down.
It’s too early to say how transformative this tragedy will be. Right now, the focus is, rightly, on the grieving families who have lost loved ones in the collapse. There will be a federal investigation into what went wrong at Champlain Towers South, and lots of recommendations about what might be learned from all this. In the end, the role that rising waters and the climate crisis played may be unanswerable in a definitive way. But one truth is inescapable: 20th century cities are not built for what’s coming at them in the 21st century. And the longer it takes for us to grasp that, and to take dramatic action to fix it, the more people will die.