Lessons From the Florida Building Collapse: What We Can Learn About Staying Safe In Old Buildings


Building collapseAfter a year of COVID dominating international headlines, 2021 gave us another terrible story on which to fixate: the building collapse in Surfside, Florida.

This tragedy involved a beachfront condominium, which suffered a partial collapse in the middle of the night — when most residents were at home sleeping. The horrific pancake-style collapse caused entire floors to be condensed into just a few inches.

In the first several weeks after the collapse, several alarming reports of building degradation have been uncovered. It’s increasingly clear that the condominium was in dire need of repairs at the time of the incident.

This raises fears of similar collapses in the future, as the Surfside building was by no means the only structure requiring attention. As a result, many people are worried about the older buildings in which they live and work. These fears are understandable, but not always justified., since many older buildings are structurally sound. Still, understanding a given building’s status can provide either peace of mind or a powerful incentive to change.

Determining the cause of the collapse remains tricky at this point, as the recovery effort is still underway. D.H. Burrows Professor of Construction Engineering Roberto Leon tells Forbes, “It is entirely too early to tell what happened…This is going to require quite a bit of investigation, and, in the end, we might not come to a complete understanding of what happened here.”

Despite this, we’ve uncovered a few early takeaways worth considering as we make extra efforts to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Keep these in mind as you determine how you can stay safe in your home or place of work — and, in the worst-case scenario, how a DC premises liability or wrongful death case might play out.

The Need for Early Action

Like many devastating incidents, the Surfside building collapse could have been prevented. The need for change was evident long before this tragedy occurred. Most notably, in an engineer’s report filed three years prior to the incident, a consultant observed evidence of structural damage involving a concrete slab below the pool deck. Additionally, the walls of the parking garage beneath the building showed extensive cracking at that time. The expert behind this report warned, “concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion.”

While the engineer’s report sparked plans for a major repair project, one delay after another prevented this effort from actually moving forward. This procrastination continued in spite of a letter from the president of the building’s condo association president. This explained that, as worrisome as the damage was when highlighted in the 2018 report, it had gotten significantly worse since then.

As a resident or employee in an older building, you may feel powerless to take the types of early actions that should have been pursued in Surfside. In reality, however, you have the ability to raise alarm bells. First, you may need to conduct some research to determine whether any worrisome inspections have occurred. Pay attention to correspondence from your condo association, landlord, or building manager. If they note the need for repairs, show your support. This can help to drive the urgent action that was not taken in Surfside.

If you suspect that responsible parties have neglected to disclose building dangers, speak out. In Surfside, Florida condo owners are doing so by filing a class-action lawsuit, which aims to compensate victims with over $5 million in damages. According to NPR, this lawsuit “accuses the condo association of failing to disclose information about safety measures and oversight as well as failing to monitor the building’s stability.” Ideally, however, your voice will be heard before a tragedy occurs.

Don’t Discount Signs of Damage

When you’re exposed to building issues often enough, it can be easy to assume that they’re no big deal. Unfortunately, such thinking encouraged many people to remain in their condos even after the dangers of the Champlain Towers South complex were obvious. Images from Google Maps indicate alarming cracks throughout the building prior to its collapse. If these problems are this easily observed in low-quality images taken from a distance, imagine what they looked like up close.

If you live in an older building but have been too consumed by your busy schedule to pay attention, consider taking a second look. Are there any signs of cracks or crumbling evident inside or from the building’s exterior? What about signs of corrosion?

Don’t assume that these issues are minor or that responsible parties will take action in the near future. Instead, bring your concerns to building management early on — and don’t stop speaking up until you feel confident that changes are in the works. If your concerns aren’t taken seriously, it’s time to think about moving.

Improving Government Oversight

Until recently, building maintenance has largely been viewed as an owner-oriented problem. After the Surfside catastrophe, however, it’s increasingly clear that a greater level of government oversight is needed to ensure that building risks are uncovered and addressed promptly.

Already, fears sparked by the Surfside collapse have prompted a new wave of building inspections. In Miami Beach, for example, the city commission met to discuss extra steps for keeping other condo buildings safe. This includes emergency inspections. Impressively, the city conducted visual inspections of hundreds of potentially vulnerable buildings in just one week. Referencing this effort, Mayor Dan Gelber revealed his intention to make sure the Surfside disaster is a “once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Similar efforts are underway all around the country. In Alexandria, for example, Mayor Justin Wilson has received numerous inquiries. The city is home to many residential buildings that are several decades old, so the increase in concern is understandable. Reporting requirements for existing buildings remain minimal throughout the state of Virginia, but as concerned residents continue to speak up, that may finally change.

The Role of a DC Premises Liability Attorney

Negligence-related injuries and fatalities are far too common, but you aren’t powerless to take action. You can benefit from working with a DC premises liability attorney. Our team at Regan Zambri Long PLLC has a strong track record with this practice area. Contact us today to schedule your free case evaluation.