A U.S. agency is set to begin its next phase into the investigation into the Surfside condominium collapse amid sweeping changes in state condo laws in the year since one of the worst building failures in the country’s history.
Why did Champlain Towers South collapse? It is a simple question with no easy answer.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, is handling the painstaking process of determining what went wrong. Dr. Judith Mitrani-Reiser is leading the investigation.
“It is very complex, and it’s unusual. We are all, like the public, desperate to find out the most probable cause of the initiation and collapse,” she said.
NIST investigated the World Trade Center collapse, and is still studying the structural devastation Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico.
In those two cases, the initiating events were clear, but in Surfside, the exact trigger that June night remains a mystery.
“Here you have a building that collapsed late in the evening hours without an obvious trigger, and it really, I know, has stumped a lot of engineers,” said Mitrani-Reiser. “There might be a number of contributors to the initiation and the progression of collapse.”
Soon after the tragedy, investigators used lasers to scan the rubble and portion of the building that remained standing. Concrete columns were later taken to a warehouse to be studied for signs of corrosion.
“You can do some sort of measurements on aggregate sizes, you can do cross-sections, you can do length measurements,” said NIST project leader Dr. Kamel Saidi.
Using that information, plus building design drawings, pictures, videos and other data, NIST created a 3-D model of Champlain Towers South.
“It’s a lot like putting puzzle pieces together. As you add more and more pieces together, the picture becomes clearer,” said NIST project leader Dr. Georgette Hlepas.
NIST has already developed about two dozen failure hypotheses about how and why the building collapsed.
“A hypothesis includes both how and where the failure started, and how it advanced through the structure,” said Glenn Bell, associate lead investigator with NIST.
Pieces of the structure will now undergo rigorous physical testing.
“We actually are shifting our investigation currently, one year later, into a more intense phase,” said Mitrani-Reiser.
Intense and invasive, as the team will be drilling and cutting into the evidence they have collected.
“The structure lived for 40 years, so all of these tests will tell us more about the material properties at the time of collapse, which is essential,” said Mitrani-Reiser.
The final federal report on why Champlain Towers South fell is not expected until 2024, but a new state law is taking effect now to try to prevent another disaster like the one in Surfside.
The new law requires condo associations to figure out how much money is needed in their reserves to fund costly structural repairs.
“There’s already fears from people in buildings that have upcoming re-certifications or upcoming assessments, where they know that they’re going to be forced to leave because they can’t afford the assessment,” said Jonathan Weislow with Amicon Management, a local consulting company.
Buildings three stories or higher will now have to undergo structural milestone inspections when they reach 30 years old, 25 if they are within three miles of the coast, and every 10 years after.
“People want to prevent the unimaginable at this juncture, and so they’re being proactive,” said Weislow.
Proactive steps to try and avoid what was seemingly unimaginable until June 24, 2021.
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