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Miami building collapse puts spotlight on climate change risks

by Matthew Lavietes | @mattlavietes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 16 July 2021 15:01 GMT

Aerial view shows the partially collapsed residential building in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. June 27, 2021. REUTERS/Marco Bello

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Could rising seas contribute to undermining coastal buildings around the world?

* Some environmental experts link collapse to climate change

* Concern could prompt tougher coastal building regulations

* Climate-focused regulatory update seen long overdue

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK, July 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Concerns that rising sea levels and extreme weather may have played a role in the collapse of a 12-story apartment tower near Miami Beach last month could have far-reaching consequences for other coastal cities and buildings around the world.

With investigations ongoing, it is too early to say what caused the oceanfront Champlain Towers South building to crumble, killing 97 people, but climatologists and other experts have suggested possible links to the effects of climate change.

"Champlain Towers just underlined the urgency about how we need to start thinking about our buildings in coastal regions," Sonia Chao, who studies the urban resilience of coastal cities at the University of Miami, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Do we revise these codes to ensure that buildings can withstand the shocks of climate over time? Or do we ignore them now and pretend like it doesn't matter?," she said, adding that climate stressors were only one of several possible causes.

Shortly after the building's collapse, officials released a 2018 engineering report that warned of "major structural damage" to the 40-year-old complex, which is now the focal point of several inquiries, including a grand jury examination.

The report noted "abundant" cracking in the foundation of the building's parking garage and prompted plans for a multi-million dollar repair project, which was due to start soon.

Residents had also complained about the recent construction of a luxury high-rise condominium that bordered Champlain Towers South, raising concerns about vibrations.

But investigators working to pinpoint the causes of the disaster will also be considering climate-linked issues in the country's most hurricane-prone state.

HURRICANES, RISING SEAS

Hurricane Andrew, which battered the Miami region in 1992 - about a decade after the Champlain Towers were constructed, pushed Florida officials to create some of the toughest storm-resistant building codes in the country.

Over the last two decades, however, coastal communities in Miami and South Florida have seen a significant rise in sea levels, with some estimates as high as 3.9 inches (9.9 cm) between 2000 and 2017.

By 2040, sea levels are expected to be 10 to 17 inches (25 to 43 cm) higher than they were in 2000, according to Miami-Dade County estimates.

More than $3 billion worth of property in Miami could be lost to daily tidal flooding by then without action to reduce the threat, according to a 2020 report by the Urban Policy Institute.

The study projected that property losses in the state would rise to $23.5 billion by 2070.

Beyond Miami, roughly 9% of the U.S. coastline is also vulnerable to saltwater intrusion, which can cause the corrosion of reinforced concrete structures like the Champlain Towers, according to a 2016 study in the academic journal Science.

'RUN OUT OF TIME'

In the 1990s, when the Champlain Towers were built, the corrosion risks posed by saltwater intrusion were not yet known, said Zhong-Ren Peng, who directs research on environmental resilience at the University of Florida.

But saltwater in a building's foundation can seep into the steel bars reinforcing it, Peng said, which can lead to corrosion, weakness and cracking of surrounding concrete.

"When those buildings were built, we didn't have a new building code and the knowledge about the potential problems of salt water intrusion," Peng said.

"It would be very prudent to have a thorough inspection and audit of all of those buildings around coastal areas."

Peng and others said the tower collapse was likely to prompt authorities to update building codes, as they did after Hurricane Andrew.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has promised a grand jury investigation of the tower's collapse similar to those she helped lead to probe the devastation wrought by Andrew.

In the weeks since last month's disaster, officials in other coastal states across the country, including in New York, New Jersey and Virginia, have begun to examine whether they should ramp up enforcement of building safety codes.

"If I were another city, I would take into consideration how South Florida's building code is considered one of the strongest ones in the world and yet this happened," said John Toohey-Morales, a Miami Beach-based meteorologist.

"You have to wonder, if you're some other city, have the buildings that we have been built sufficiently strongly to be able to withstand the rising seas as we go forward?," he added.

Chao said the Champlain Towers collapse should serve as a trigger for long overdue action to ensure building regulations contemplate potential climate-related dangers.

"The time for us to deal with this was long ago, but, at the very least, let's start dealing with it now," she said. "We can't continue to just kick that bucket down the road. We've run out of time."

(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes @mattlavietes; Editing by Helen Popper and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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