Energy secretary suggests climate crisis may have played a role in Miami condo collapse

·4-min read
 Search and rescue personnel work after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida (Getty Images)
Search and rescue personnel work after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida (Getty Images)

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has suggested that impacts linked to the climate crisis may have played a role in the devastating condo building collapse in Florida.

The death toll from the collapse of the oceanfront Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Miami, continues to rise with 11 confirmed fatalities and more than 150 people still missing. It may turn out to be the deadliest building collapse in the US in two decades.

Rescue operations are still underway, and the investigation into what caused the residential block of apartments to collapse last Thursday on a still summer’s night is only in the initial stages.

But impacts of the climate crisis have been suggested as playing a potential role, including the rapidly-rising sea levels in the Miami area, sinking land and increasingly severe tidal flooding.

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It was these factors that Ms Granholm appeared to highlight during a CNN interview on Tuesday about President Biden’s infrastructure bill. She was asked by CNN whether climate change could have played a role in the building’s collapse.

“Obviously, we don’t know fully, but we do know that the seas are rising. We know that we’re losing inches and inches of beaches, not just in Florida but all around,” Ms Granholm said.

“Lake Michigan, where I’m from, we’ve seen the loss of beaches because the waters are rising, so this is a phenomenon that will continue.”

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Surfside on Thursday to meet with families of the victims.

A 2018 report by engineering firm Morabito Consultants first identified issues with weakening concrete at Champlain Towers and estimated it would cost more than $9m to repair. Much of the planned work was in the pool area and the facade but structural repairs and work on the garage were also needed.

Another 2018 Morabito document submitted to the city of Surfside said waterproofing under the pool deck had failed and had been improperly laid flat instead of sloped, preventing water from draining off, according to an AP report.

“The failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas. Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially,” the report said.

Engineering experts have suggested a range of possibilities including that substandard concrete or steel was used in construction or that a sinkhole opened up beneath the concrete pilings at the base of the building. The New York Times reported that heavy construction in 2019 at the building next door could have damaged Champlain Towers South.

However a former maintenance manager at the building in the late Nineties also told CBS Miami that he remembered up to two feet of seawater at times flooding the underground garage and that two large pumps couldn’t keep up.

“The water would just basically sit there and then it would just seep downward,” William Espinosa told the station. “It would just go away after a while. And I would think, where does that water go? Because it had to go in through somewhere.”

Sea levels are rising quickly in the Miami area and by 2040, they are expected to be 10 to 17 inches higher than 2000 levels in Southeast Florida. An added problem for the state is that it sits on porous limestone meaning many traditional methods to stop flooding don’t work as water can flow through and under sea walls, Sealevelrise.org reported.

Salty seawater is corrosive. It can seep into concrete and then rust thick steel rods known as rebar which are set within to strengthen building construction.

Elected officials in the area pledged to meet with engineering, construction and geology experts to review safety issues and develop recommendations as the collapse focused scrutiny on the safety of older high-rise buildings throughout South Florida. Some 120,000 properties are at risk from frequent tidal flooding in Florida.

AP contributed to this report

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