At the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo, members of a search and rescue team look for possible survivors on June 27, 2021.

After Florida Condo Collapse, Engineers Search for Answers

The quiet, highly technical work of structural engineers and building inspectors has entered the spotlight after the sudden collapse late last week of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condo in Surfside, Florida. As of Thursday evening, intensive search and rescue efforts had recovered 18 bodies from the site, just north of Miami Beach. Some 145 more people remain missing.

“You don’t see buildings falling down in America,” Surfside mayor Charles Burkett told reporters last week. While that’s not entirely true — collapses have occurred before, including a 1974 disaster in downtown Miami — the rare catastrophe has led to extensive discussion about what went wrong, and mobilized engineering experts to evaluate possible next steps.

Champlain Towers was built in 1981 during a boom in condominium construction. A recent inspection had shown substantial damage, including “abundant cracking” and crumbling in concrete columns and beams, and water damage to a concrete slab located in the lower part of the condominium. But the report did not suggest an imminent collapse.

People have proposed a range of theories for the disaster, including the corrosive effects of saltwater on the building’s materials, and a sinkhole opening beneath the structure. Sea level rise, caused by climate change, currently threatens many communities on Florida’s coastlines. But any connection between encroaching seawater and the tragedy in Surfside — while possible — appears to be mostly speculation at this point.

On Wednesday, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal government research laboratory, that, among many other roles, develops building and construction standards, announced “a full technical investigation” into the causes of the collapse. The probe, which could take years, may also yield recommendations for changes to building codes and practices.

“Buildings don’t fail frequently, and the field takes very seriously the need to learn when failures do happen,” said Benjamin Schafer, a structural engineer at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with Scientific American this week. Already, Schafer said during the interview, the U.S. faces considerable engineering challenges, including updating aging infrastructure and preparing for the stresses of a changing climate on buildings.

For now, the causes of the specific collapse in Surfside remain murky — and at least one structural engineer urged patience as experts try to piece together the story. “You can have two buildings next to each other, one made a mistake in design and the other didn’t,” Atorod Azizinamini, the chair of Florida International University’s College of Engineering, told The Palm Beach Post after the collapse. “It’s natural for people to try to identify right away what happened, but that’s not the scientific approach.”

Also in the News:

• As the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the globe, some public health officials are urging renewed caution. The highly contagious variant, which was first detected in India, now accounts for one in five infections in the U.S. While several studies have shown that current vaccines are effective against Delta, they seem to be less so than for other variants. The challenge of the new variant has caused some divisions among public health agencies: Last week, the World Health Organization reaffirmed its recommendation that everyone — included those who are fully vaccinated — should continue to wear masks indoors. Some local public health departments in the U.S. have followed suit. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday reaffirmed its guidance that in most cases, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks. Public health officials are united, though, in focusing their concern on the billions of people who remain unvaccinated. In the U.S., Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently warned of the possibility of “two Americas” as the gap between areas with high and low vaccination rates grows. Already in Australia, where just under 6 percent of the population is vaccinated, lockdown measures are returning. (The New York Times)

• The record-shattering heat wave that settled over Pacific Northwest this past weekend may have been responsible for hundreds of deaths and illnesses in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. Temperatures reached 118 degrees Fahrenheit in the region, at a time when the usual summer weather tends to hover in the 60s and 70s. In part because of those historically mild temperatures, many people in the region don’t have air-conditioning in their homes. But many experts are now warning that such extreme temperatures, fostered by high-pressure phenomena known as heat domes, are likely to become more frequent due to climate change. The high temperatures also worsened existing drought conditions in the Pacific Northwest, while local infrastructure took a hit as the heat caused roads to buckle and power cables to melt. The combination of heat, dry conditions, and wind has also helped spark a wave of forest fires from Canada to northern California. (Multiple sources)

• Two months ago, President Joe Biden set a goal for U.S. Covid-19 vaccinations: 70 percent of adults in the country would have at least one dose by July 4. With the deadline just days away, the White House will likely miss that goal. As of this week, around 67 percent of adults had received one shot. (Out of all eligible Americans, including adolescents, more than 54 percent had received one dose and 47 percent were fully vaccinated). But the vaccination rates have been uneven across the country. According to The Washington Post’s Covid-19 vaccination tracker, at least 18 states have already met or surpassed the July 4 goal, including all of the Northeast. Both the Midwest and the South are lagging; the lowest rates are in Mississippi, which has at least partially vaccinated just 46 percent of adults as of late June. At a White House briefing last week, the nation’s coronavirus coordinator, Jeff Zients, pointed out that the goal was meant to spur action, and that vaccination campaigns will stretch beyond this weekend. “Our work does not stop on July 4 or at 70 percent,” Zients said. “But we used this aspirational goal to drive progress in a very short period of time.” (The Washington Post)

• On Tuesday, researchers from an international collaboration dedicated to detecting gravitational waves published a paper detailing the first ever confirmed observations of a black hole colliding with a neutron star. The findings, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, describe the detection of two such events, observed 10 days apart from each other in January 2020. The team of researchers responsible for the discovery — known as the LIGO-Virgo-KAGRA collaboration — pools the resources of the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA) in Japan, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the U.S. states of Louisiana and Washington, and the Virgo interferometer in Italy. Gravitational waves are disruptions in the curvature of spacetime, often caused by the merger of a pair of black holes or a pair of neutron stars — the ultra-dense remnants of collapsed stars. While those kinds of mergers have been detected before, researchers had never detected a mixed merger between a neutron star and a black hole. “We’ve now seen the first examples of black holes merging with neutron stars, so we know that they’re out there,” said Maya Fishbach, a gravitational wave astronomer at Northwestern University and one of the paper’s many co-authors, in a press release. “But there’s still so much we don’t know.” (Ars Technica)

• And finally: For years, critics have raised concerns about researchers who collect data from Indigenous communities without full consent or respect for people’s traditions — and then sometimes allow that data to be used for commercial purposes. Now, a first-of-its kind workshop, IndigiData, aims to support a new generation of Indigenous data scientists. Led by Indigenous researchers, the four-day workshop last month offered sessions about data science, ethics, and data sovereignty to tribal undergraduate and graduate students. The workshop’s central theme explored the microorganisms that live in and on the human body — a topic that one of the organizers thinks will be of increasing interest for Western scientists. With funding for the next four years, the organizers of the workshop hope to empower Indigenous data scientists to benefit from the possibilities of data. “I’m not saying that I like capitalism,” one of the presenters, Keolu Fox, told The New York Times. “But data is power, and that’s the way for us to revitalize our communities.” (The New York Times)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Sudhi Oberoi, and Jane Roberts contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.