The enormity of the tragic loss of lives and property in the haunting collapse of the 13-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, continues to grow. Close to 150 people are dead or missing, notwithstanding a herculean rescue effort. Earlier this week, with Tropical Storm Elsa approaching, demolition crews brought down what was left of the hobbled building.
The population of Surfside is a reflection of the cultural, economic and religious intermixture of the Miami area. There is a large Jewish population in Surfside, as there was in the collapsed tower, made up of immigrants, snowbirds, retirees and vacationers. Many were Orthodox, drawn to the neighborhood by a thriving Chabad synagogue and a wide array of kosher eateries, all within a few short blocks.
There was a special energy to the Surfside community that came crashing down with the Champlain Towers building. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the tragedy could have been avoided. Indeed, based upon a stream of almost daily investigative reports in local and national publications, there appear to have been several warnings of structural decay problems at the building, and an all-too-familiar debate between condominium owners and their homeowners’ association over whether, when and at what cost repair work should be done.
A 2018 analysis of the building found major structural damage and warned of further deterioration. More recent reports confirmed the problems. An alarming summary was issued to unit owners by the former association president just two months ago, warning that: “The concrete deterioration is accelerating…. When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface.”
Obviously no one wanted the Champlain Towers South building to collapse, but the price of projected repairs gave owners pause. And the price kept rising — from a projected $9 million following the initial inspection, to a whopping $15 million, astronomical when you consider that the association only had $800,000 in reserves. The repairs were finally approved a short while ago, but they never got started.
And now the worst has happened. We mourn the tragic loss of lives. But the management dilemma of aging infrastructure, sky-high maintenance and repair bills, and the challenge of finding money to fix the growing problems is not unique. Local governments and condominium associations in every city face precisely the same issues every day.
We need to learn a lesson from Champlain Towers. We cannot allow any aspect of our nation’s infrastructure to deteriorate and fail. Even if there is a steep price to pay for maintenance and repair, that is a worthwhile and necessary investment. Just ask any family member of a beloved soul lost in the Champlain Towers collapse. JN