Could A Surfside Building Disaster Happen On The NY Or NJ Coast?

Last week, search crews reached the bottom of the rubble at the Champlain Towers condo building site in Surfside, Florida, where at least 98 people perished due to a deadly collapse in June. The exact cause is still unclear, but lack of maintenance, structural damage from exposure to salty sea air and storms, and subsidence (sinking) in combination with sea level rise may be to blame. Experts say although a similar tragedy is less likely in the tri-state area, buildings in Atlantic City and coastal Long Island are most at risk.

“If I was a building inspector in any one of those towns, I would be doing overtime right now,” said Clint Andrews, professor of Urban Planning at Rutgers University.

That’s because buildings along the New York and New Jersey coastline face similar challenges with erosion as Surfside does. The air near the ocean is saltier than inland—and that can corrode materials over time, as can increased exposure to seawater from flooding.

All those factors are exacerbated by sea levels rising faster in the Northeast than in other places—including Florida, said Andrews.

And while the sea elevates, the ground is sinking. Jacky Austermann, an assistant professor in earth sciences at Columbia University, said the tri-state area, along with the rest of the East Coast, is sinking at a rate of around 1 millimeter per year.

That subsidence is a geographical reaction to the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which stretched from the Arctic downward tens of thousands of years ago, stopping right around the mid-Atlantic states. It’s massive weight pushed the ground down, and areas south of the glacier rose to balance out the material squeezing into the Earth’s mantle.

If I was a building inspector in any one of those towns, I would be doing overtime right now

Clint Andrews, Rutgers University

Think of Earth’s mantle as a water bed, said Andrew Kemp, associate professor of Earth and Ocean sciences at Tufts University. If you lie on one side of the bed, the water goes to the other side and causes it to rise. Once you get off the bed, everything levels out again. “Earth does something similar where if you imagine, instead of putting a person on a water bed, you put a huge mass of ice in Canada,” Kemp said.

Coastal Jersey and Long Island sat right on the rising edge, known as the forebulge. Now that the glacier is completely gone, the ground here is course correcting by slowly sinking back down.

Although a millimeter of subsidence per year may not sound like a lot, it can compound other weather events and the impacts of sea-level rise. “If you add high tide or storms to something that’s a little lower… than it used to be, a 50-year flood then becomes a 10-year flood pretty quickly,” said Austermann.

Although the East Coast as a whole is slowly sinking, the specific ground underneath building structures matters, too. In Manhattan, for example, much of the ground is made of hard bedrock, said Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist with Columbia University’s Earth Institute. And that’s more conducive to building big heavy skyscrapers than the loose sandy soil in Atlantic City and Long Island.

Rescue workers stand on rubble looking at the jagged remains of the condo

Rescue workers on July 2, 2021 Miami-Dade Fire Rescue

Perhaps the most crucial piece in preventing tragedies, like the one is Surfside, is building inspection and maintenance. In Miami-Dade County, which includes Surfside, building owners are required to have an inspection by an engineer every 10 years after the building turns 40.

Lisa Ryan, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs said that the Bureau of Housing Inspection oversees regular inspections of hotels, motels, and multiple-family buildings that contain three or more housing units and that these inspections typically take place every five years.

The inspections focus mainly on maintenance: heating issues, critter infestations and lead hazards. “The inspectors are not engineers, but if they notice something that looks questionable for structural purposes, they would alert the building owner and the local construction code official,” said Ryan.

But there are no state-wide requirements for engineers to check buildings in New Jersey on a consistent basis like there are in Miami-Dade. In Jersey City, Mayor Fulop recently introduced legislation that would require facade inspections every five years and structural inspections every 10 years.

Officials in Suffolk and Nassau counties didn’t respond to our request for information about how often they conduct their inspections.

Dale Finch, director of licensing and inspections, which does inspections in Atlantic City for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, said there have been no changes to the way inspections are done that he’s aware of since the Surfside disaster.

“Everybody’s now probably much more aware of what’s going on because of what happened in Florida,” said Finch, but there hasn’t been a notable change in concern from tenants, he said.

Andrews says he’ll be thinking about all these issues the next time he’s in Atlantic City:

“People go there to gamble, but they probably don’t go there to gamble with their lives.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that 98 people have been identified as deceased in the Champlain Towers collapse.