Events this week in Surfside, Florida will spark countless conversations on an array of issues that confront Americans far beyond the footprint of the collapsed hi-rise on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
In the midst of political fighting over the infrastructure bill(s) currently before Congress, the tragic building collapse of Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida is a worrisome development for millions of Americans. The horrific and heartbreaking accounts from first responders to the sudden collapse of a forty-year-old, twelve-story hi-rise will generate countless conversations around dinner tables and water coolers in the days and weeks to come.
How could this happen? Is my building safe? When was my building last inspected? Can my landlord be trusted? Did government agencies perform necessary safety inspections? Is that just a crack in the concrete in my parking garage or is my building about to fall down?
In our contemporary urbanized society, condominium living has become increasingly popular. While I currently reside in a single-family home, I have spent the past two decades in two separate hi-rise buildings, each at least thirty stories tall. Condo board meetings frequently focused on “major repair work” needed to keep the building structurally sound and residents safe. But the thought never occurred to me that my building might fall down at any moment. And, while significant investigation is underway as to the cause of the collapse in Surfside, the idea that such an event is possible at all adds a whole new layer of concern onto the fraught lives we currently lead.
I grew up with parents who lived through the Great Depression and they consistently sought solutions—in both our personal lives and in the public policies we supported—that featured long-term problem solving. Currently, though, we seem to base our decision making on the next quarterly report or election cycle. Investing in the future has become out of fashion (just ask Greta Thunberg). We often fail to underwrite long-term safeguards or innovative approaches to recurring problems unless they provide a short-term benefit.
Dramatic footage and heart-rending comments from the heroic first-responders in Surfside have focused a spotlight on infrastructure needs in this country. They have, inadvertently, also surfaced a host of issues—from political graft to climate change—that range far from the tragic collapse of a single building. The Surfside condo collapse can be seen as a symbolic catch-all for far deeper issues, even as highlighted in the week’s headlines: The public relations fiasco in the New York City mayoral race continues to erode public trust in decision-making that serves the public good (and the long-term health of our democracy); the unprecedented heat dome in the Northwest reminds us yet again of how the looming threat of climate change is not a remote possibility but a present reality that only threatens to get worse.
“Is my building safe?” has suddenly become a nagging, back-burner dread for many. We are just emerging from pandemic lock-downs where our homes have assumed additional meaning beyond being a place to lay our heads. They now often double as classrooms, office spaces and entertainment centers. And while there is little evidence that collapsing buildings will become widespread, in the same way that terrorists produce havoc and emotional distress far beyond their numbers (and influence how we think about public spaces from shopping malls to concerts), uncertainty that the building we call home might simply fall away beneath our feet adds yet another layer of stress onto so many who are already buckling under the weight of anxiety in our overly complicated world.