Tue | Sep 28, 2021

Editorial | Jamaica needs to learn lessons from Surfside

Published:Saturday | July 24, 2021 | 12:07 AM

The collapse of a condo in Surfside, South Florida, last month that claimed more than 100 lives has left many people who live in high-rise buildings nervously wondering about their safety.

The disaster in Surfside has prompted coastal cities in Florida to start conducting audits, particularly of older buildings, to determine their vulnerabilities having regard to the fact that they are susceptible to salt water intrusion, rising sea levels, climate change and the ravages of hurricanes.

While the scale of Surfside was unprecedented in Florida, recent history recalls that, in 1974, a three-storey office building collapsed in Miami, killing nine Drug Enforcement Administration agents and workers and injuring 19 others. It was determined that the roof was overloaded as it was used for parking cars. It was that tragedy which prompted Miami-Dade to institute a 40-year recertification requirement of buildings.

Jamaicans may think that this is none of their concern. But wait, the Jamaican landscape has become increasingly dotted with residential and commercial buildings that are reaching for the skies, and some are older than 40 years. Concerns about the structural integrity of older high-rises are not in the least confined to the 1,350 miles of Florida coastline. Indeed, they extend way beyond to island nations like Jamaica.

More than three years ago, Christopher Lue, at that time president of the Jamaica Institute of Architects, sounded an alarm. He expressed concern that the pace of commercial and residential development was not supported by the existing infrastructure.

UPGRADE INFRASTRUCTURE

He said then, if Jamaica wanted to copy developed cities like Miami, it needed to upgrade the infrastructure, including water supply, sewage, waste water removal and parking.

He went further, demanding that high-rise buildings have safety infrastructure such as sprinkler systems and fire suppressant building materials, and for the country to have a well-equipped fire service with the capability of reaching top floors. Mr Lue’s words may yet come back to haunt us.

Management is crucial to the proper running and safety of these multi-storey complexes. As the investigators carry out their work to determine what caused the collapse in Surfside, there is already evidence of flaws in management and lax enforcement.

To keep these complexes in good shape, maintenance fees are charged and, from time to time, there is a cess imposed to undertake repairs and upgrades. Homeowners’ associations run these complexes. It is an open secret that apartment dwellers sometimes fail to make their maintenance payments in a timely manner. Indeed, at one complex, the names of delinquents and the amounts owed were posted at the gate. A drastic measure, for sure, but possibly this came after much coaxing and pleading with the homeowners to settle their accounts. Without these funds, repairs may be delayed or, worse, ignored.

Oversight is also important. The home association boards make big decisions. They need to be very clear about their responsibilities, including the technical decisions that must be taken to ensure the health and safety of homeowners and their families.

The authorities should not wait to put measures in place to give the requisite support to home associations and property managers. Many of these associations are mired in apathy and, since most people do not want to serve, the willing may not be the most able. This is where some kind of education programme would be useful for members to understand the legal ramifications of their decisions and the implications.

Jamaica is not big on enforcement. That is something we have come to live with. However, it is a terrifying thought that Jamaica could face a tragedy on the scale of Surfside, because the authorities failed to do a serious audit of ageing high-rise buildings to determine their vulnerabilities and ensure compliance with the relevant building codes for those being constructed.