As the death toll from the 13-story apartment building collapse in Florida rises to 12, with nearly 150 people still missing, we examine how the disaster raises new questions about how rising sea levels will impact oceanside buildings in Miami and other cities. “The reason this is so important is that either this is something unique to the building or this is a general problem that all the condos along the coasts of the world are going to have to deal with,” says Harold Wanless, a professor in geography and urban sustainability at the University of Miami who leads a project called The Invading Sea, a collaborative effort by news organizations across Florida to address the threat of sea level rise.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
In Florida, the death toll has risen to 12, with nearly 150 people still missing, following the catastrophic collapse of the 13-story apartment building in Surfside, right next to Miami Beach. On Thursday, President Biden is scheduled to visit the site with Dr. Biden, his wife. The state attorney for Miami-Dade County has announced she would ask a grand jury to examine what may be deadliest collapse of a residential building in U.S. history.
A 2018 inspection found the building had “abundant cracking and spalling” in its foundation, with engineers pointing to design flaws and insufficient waterproofing. Less than three months before the collapse, the president of the condominium association warned residents that the damage had, quote, “gotten significantly worse.” Just last week, a pool contractor took photos underneath the building’s pool deck showing water damage and cracked concrete.
While investigators have not determined the exact cause of the collapse, the disaster raises new questions about how rising sea levels will impact oceanside buildings in Miami and other cities.
We go now to Coral Gables, Florida, where we’re joined by Harold Wanless, professor of geography and urban sustainability at the University of Miami. He leads a project called The Invading Sea, a collaborative effort by news organizations across Florida to address the threat of sea level rise.
Dr. Wanless, you say soon, in fact, Miami will be underwater. But talk about that relevance today to what we are seeing. In all of the carpet coverage of this catastrophe that has taken place, rarely do we hear the words “climate change.”
HAROLD WANLESS: Right. Well, since the building was built, there has been about seven, eight inches of further sea level rise, which is very fast. But if that building was built properly, I would be surprised that that would have a major effect. If we look to the future, which maybe we can do in a minute, that would be important.
I think the problem with this building is there may be some design and there may be, certainly, some maintenance problems. But I think they need to look very carefully at the elevation of the base of the parking garage, which you go down to go into, I believe. And that was much lower. And they also are going to need to look at, very carefully, exactly what this building was built on. We assumed it was sand of the barrier island overlying rock, but that may not be correct. There’s some evidence that something else was dug out and filled back in, and we need to look at that.
But, you know, the reason this is so important is that either this is something unique to the building or this is a general problem that all the condos along the coasts of the world are going to have to deal with, because, certainly, there is salt spray, and, certainly, during exceptional tides, you do get saltwater into the groundwater. There’s often freshwater. But even freshwater on concrete that isn’t that good is highly corrosive. So, yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Wanless, could you talk about the impact of saltwater on structures? Because we see this in New York City all the time on highways that are right along the water, that they’re constantly having to repair them because of the corrosive nature of the salt.
HAROLD WANLESS: That’s right. And in contrast, Flagler built the railroad down to Key West in the early part of the previous century, and he used some German concrete that was designed for saltwater. And we do it all the time with bridges and other structures around the world. And the problem is, I don’t think we’re using the proper quality concrete, because — you know, it could be in 20 to 30 years we could have as much as two to three feet of further sea level rise. Ice melt is really accelerating our sea level rise. And so, we’re really in for it. And so, we have to deal with the question you asked, straight up. You know, it’s not, “Well, this is above sea level.” No, it’s not really above sea level in the near future.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about Miami, its future?
HAROLD WANLESS: Miami’s future? Well, because we’ve warmed the ocean — almost all the heat from global warming is in the ocean — because that warmed ocean and the warmed atmosphere is now — has initiated and is rapidly accelerating ice melt on both Greenland and Antarctica, we are, as I said, certainly going to be in for a two-to-three-foot further sea level rise by midcentury — a mortgage cycle away only. And we could be at eight to as much as 15 feet by the end of the century.
So, Miami? Well, there’s only 3% of Miami-Dade County is greater than 12 feet above sea level. And even at six feet, it’s pretty well going to be over later this century. But we’re building here like there’s no tomorrow — maybe that’s correct. You know, it’s a hard thing for people to think that this hasn’t always been here, but it hasn’t. Sea level just happened to slow down for the last couple thousand years, and so we built like this has always been here. And unfortunately, the barrier island of Miami Beach and all the barrier islands of the world are going to be inundated, compromised, eroded, storm surged across more aggressively in the pretty near future.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the government policy related to this in places like Miami or New Orleans, that it’s actually to build much more — spend billions on constructing man-made barriers instead of relocating populations, and having the whole country have to pay for folks who want to live by the ocean?
AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 30 seconds.
HAROLD WANLESS: Yeah, that’s a good — that’s a very good question. And it’s the same question on floodplains, where we’re now having more aggressive floods. But this is a very fair question. And I don’t think there’s an easy answer for it. The problem with Miami, we live on very porous limestone, so you can’t put a dike or a levee around this and keep the water out. It will come right up through the rock.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harold Wanless, we’re going to be back with you soon — critical analysis — professor of geography and urban sustainability at the University of Miami, leading a project called The Invading Sea. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.