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South Florida collapse shows infrastructure is a persistent threat to public health


The deadly building collapse in South Florida is a searing reminder that fragile infrastructure can have tragic public health consequences.

Although exceptions can and have occurred, 72 hours is considered the essential rescue window for people trapped in rubble following the collapse of a building. After that, without an ongoing source of oxygen and water, especially in the presence of severe injuries, survival becomes increasingly unlikely. In the case of last Thursday’s early morning collapse of the 13-story Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Fla., that deadline came and passed at 1:30 a.m. last Sunday. Hope now rapidly dims for the 126 people still unaccounted for.

There are grave concerns, as well, about the two adjacent Champlain Towers condos. Since all three structures were built with similar architectural plans and construction strategies, potentially serious design flaws recognized three years ago in the ill-fated condo should be assumed to be an imminent threat to the structural integrity of the other two buildings in the same complex. As an immediate precaution, people should be evacuated from the neighboring buildings until appropriate inspections can be conducted. 

Besides what appears to have been design flaws in the Champlain Towers condos, there may well be additional damage caused by recurrent flooding consequent to sea level rise associated with climate change. This does not bode well, of course, for coastal communities in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. where some 95 million Americans currently live.

And what about the resilience of the built environment in areas where earthquakes, wildfires, or tornadoes are a recurrent risk? It is estimated that some 143 million Americans live in potentially seismically active regions, while another 43 million American homes are in wildfire-prone areas. It is precisely in areas like these where typical, good construction standards are insufficient to withstand threats from strong earthquakes, severe winds, or raging wildfires. Such hazards test the resiliency of America’s built environment, a key component of our total infrastructure which also includes thousands of dams, levees, water and water treatment systems, power plants and the complex national grid systems.

So what is the connection between the calamity in Surfside and the infrastructure bill currently the focus of hot debate in Washington? 

What do we mean by the very term, “infrastructure”? Should stabilizing and upgrading safety of buildings, especially multifamily residential structures be included? I believe so. In earthquake prone regions, including in California, new construction of hospitals and schools must meet standards that offer protection from earthquakes. And older construction must be appropriately retrofitted to meet similar standards. Why shouldn’t the same protection be applied to multifamily dwellings?

And it is worth noting that President Biden’s original proposal for infrastructure investment actually included billions for “home care” services, schools, workforce development and research. In fact, the president originally proposed over $200 billion investments in affordable housing, including retrofitting and renovating between 2 to 3 million homes and housing units. All of these investments go well beyond bridges, roads and levees.

While not every failing component of our nation’s infrastructure is addressed in the latest version of what has become a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, it is clearly a highly significant first step forward. Ultimately, however, upgrading and repairing infrastructure across the board may require an additional $2 trillion over the next one to two decades.

Still, this first investment package will make the country far more secure and less fragile while creating countless good-paying jobs, providing universal access to broadband and improving resilience to climate change.

And it should not be forgotten that while the very term “infrastructure” connotes physical systems and the “built environment,” every infrastructure failure represents a potential public health crisis. 

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf in 2005 as a Category 3 storm, some 40 percent of the overall deaths — or more than 1,000 people — drowned because of potentially preventable levee failures. Poorly constructed homes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, along with fragile electrical grid infrastructure, resulted in thousands of deaths from a series of major storms in 2017, including Hurricanes Harvey, Michael, and Maria. 

In 2013, seven children died in Moore, Okla., when a tornado struck an elementary school there that had been built without an appropriate shelter. And in 2010, a BP offshore oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 people and spilling 134 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico — creating one of the worst environmental disasters in the past century.

Perhaps the most dangerous infrastructure threat America faces is widespread electrical grid failure caused by design flaws or cyberattack. A relatively small, time-limited grid failure in Texas this past winter left 4.5 million people without electricity, leading to the deaths of at least 150 people. One can only imagine the catastrophic consequences from a large-scale widespread and prolonged grid failure.

But above all else, while fixing America’s infrastructure is necessary to function optimally and compete in the 21st Century, these upgrades and repairs may be the most important investments in safeguarding the public’s health that we have ever made. Let’s hope that this agenda can be a common ground pursuit for Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

Dr. Irwin Redlener (@IrwinRedlenerMD) is the founding director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute as well as a senior research scholar. He is also a public health analyst for NBC/MSNBC and the author of, “Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” and “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.”

Tags bipartisan infrastructure deal Champlain climate resilience electrical grid Environmental Issue Infrastructure Joe Biden Natural Disaster Surfside condominium building collapse

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