The collapse of a 12-story condo near Miami has raised questions about whether there were any warning signs in the months and days leading up to the deadly disaster.
As many as 99 people are still missing and one person is dead after the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida, collapsed around 2 a.m. Thursday.
There was little to signal the imminent threat as most residents were asleep in their beds when the structure toppled. But experts say that’s most often the case.
“It’s likely that one moment things will seem fine, and the next everything falls apart,” McClatchy News reported, citing StoragePrepper.
There may, however, be more long-term signs of distress.
Long-term warning signs a building may collapse
Warning signs will depend on the type of building, its condition and where it’s located, said Atorod Azizinamini, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Florida International University. They might include differential sediment, cracks and signs of corrosion.
Balconies, for example, often show evidence of corrosion where the cement cracks and falls off, he told McClatchy News.
Cracks are, in fact, a tell-tale sign, said Greg Batista, a structural engineer and the owner and president of G. Batista Engineering & Construction, WTSP reported. While they might not be indicative of a major problem and can be fixed quickly, he said they’re worth addressing.
“You don’t have to be a structural engineer to look and see that there’s a crack,” Batista told the TV station. “There are special tests that can be done to know if this crack will lead to anything serious.”
Contributing factors to structural safety
Constructing a building in a given location doesn’t ensure that it will be more or less structurally sound.
“You can build anything anywhere if you understand what the design mold should be,” Azizinamini said.
There are, however, factors that builders are typically aware of during construction. For example, salt water near the ocean can wear on high-rise balconies, Azizinamini said.
But that doesn’t mean the entire building is going to crumble.
“Collapse happens very rarely,” he told McClatchy News. “You can say that I need to pay more attention to the design of this building, but you can’t say that it’s more prone to collapse.”
The role of building inspections
Diagnosing potential danger points in a building is a process.
Unlike bridges, which undergo a specific inspection procedure every two years, Azizinamini said there is no set process for buildings that are inspected at far less frequent intervals.
In Miami-Dade County, The Miami Herald reported residential buildings go through a recertification process every 40 years.
Buildings can, however, go through a process of what’s known as nondestructive testing, Azizinamini said. He compared it to going to the doctor when you’re sick — engineers and inspectors identify a potential problem, then conduct different tests to diagnosis the source.
He said it’s too soon to tell if Thursday’s tragedy should serve as a warning for other potential building collapses, but it might spur changes down the road for more routine building inspections.
“If you inspect sooner, if there are signs of a problem, you can catch it,” Azizinamini said. “Like if you have a car, you don’t take the car to the mechanic after 40 years — that’s too late.”
What caused the Miami high-rise to collapse
There has been speculation that the condo in Surfside may have been sinking into the earth for decades. But officials and experts warn against jumping to conclusions in the wake of Thursday’s tragedy.
“This is an extraordinarily unusual event, and it is dangerous and counterproductive to speculate on its cause,” Daniel Dietch, Surfside’s mayor from 2010 to 2020, told USA Today.
Azizinamini said computer simulations will help engineers pinpoint the root cause of the collapse, but that could take months. In the meantime, he said everyone should be diligently analyzing all potential factors.
“People have a tendency of knowing one factor very well and then claiming that’s the reason why the building collapsed,” he said. “It’s premature to do that. It only adds to the panic.”
Hayley Fowler is a reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking and real-time news across North and South Carolina. She has a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and previously worked as a legal reporter in New York City before joining the Observer in 2019.