Who Is In Charge When The Cranes Fall? No One

Nov 8, 2017

Bruno Rebuffo heard the crane fall before he knew what it was.

“It sounded like an earthquake, honestly,” he said. “It was a big loud boom and you thought the roof is going to fall”

Across the street from his apartment building, Hurricane Irma had twisted and snapped a part of a construction crane. The broken part crashed into the unfinished Gran Paraiso building in Miami's Edgewater neighborhood that it was helping to erect and landed on an incomplete floor some 50 stories in the air. The counterweights, the massive blocks that help offset the weight of what the crane picks up, fell all the way to the street and embedded themselves into the asphalt.

Bruno Rebuffo and his family live across the street from one of the cranes that broke during Hurricane Irma. They had to leave their apartment building for four days because of safety concerns.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Rebuffo and his family had to evacuate, at the urging of city officials, for fear the broken part of the crane would also fall, like the counterweights, and maybe hit more than an empty road.

It’s been two months since Hurricane Irma and construction is back up and running at the three sites where cranes toppled onto unfinished buildings during the storm-- two in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale. No one has been held accountable for those cranes breaking and likely no one will because of questions over jurisdiction, litigation from nearly a decade ago and more recent state law.

Who Is In Charge?

“These tower cranes were not supposed to fail in a tropical storm. It should have never happened,” said Maurice Pons,  building official for the city of Miami.

A statement put out by the City of Miami building department.

Before the storm, his department sent out a message on social media that said the cranes were supposed to be rated for winds up to 145 miles per hour.

During the hurricane, winds never reached that speed. Gusts in some areas just broke 100 miles per hour in the county, but up and down the coast, sustained winds were around the tropical storm, low-Category 1 Hurricane levels.

The cranes fell anyway.

“As a building official for the city of Miami I don't have jurisdictions on tower cranes. Tower cranes are considered construction equipment and they're not part of the building code,” said Pons.

When pressed to name who was, in fact, in charge:

“That's a little bit somewhat open,” he said. “No agency really had  in their purview to be able to investigate a tower crane accident or incident."

The federal Office of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates cranes to ensure worker safety, but it's not thinking of public safety in general. So it is not concerned with times when laborers are not on the job site, like during a storm.

Since no worker was hurt in the three crane crashes, they’re not in charge.

OSHA did not make itself available for an interview, but a spokesperson sent a statement: "OSHA has provided technical assistance in the case. They have worked with the City of Miami,  associated construction contractors, the crane owners, as well as the manufacturer of the cranes, in assessing the damage for safe removal and provided on-site structural engineering assistance and support. The crane components were moved to secure locations off-site and testing and evaluations are ongoing to ascertain the reason for the failures."

And as Pons said, the city and the county have no crane regulations on the books that give them the authority to enter that arena.

A History Lesson

One of the reasons that Pons and his counterpart at the county don’t have any authority over cranes is because of what happened in Miami-Dade County almost a decade ago.

Counterweights from the crane at the Gran Paraiso embedded in the road alongside the building.
Credit FRANK RODRIGUEZ

“The same as Irma, except it was worse,” said Miami-Dade  Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who remembers back to the mid-2000s.

There was a construction boom and again and again, cranes were falling.

During Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, two cranes collapsed, and another in Margate in September. In April 2006, one person died in a collapse. A month later a headline read “OSHA Investigating Collapse that Killed Three.”

Counterweights from the crane at the Gran Paraiso.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

In 2008, a crane collapsed in each of the months of March, June, August and October. Two cranes collapsed in April of that year.

“One day I'm just driving down the street and my car had to go underneath a crane. And all I could think of is what if this thing falls on me,” said Edmonson.

So, she pushed for and passed an ordinance to bolster crane regulations. It established higher wind standards for cranes and required construction sites to have a plan for what they would do with a crane during a hurricane.

“These cranes, most of them were falling when there was somewhat of a windy day,” said Edmonson. “So, if that can knock down a crane, imagine: This is hurricane city here.”

Soon after the ordinance passed, cranes stopped falling for the most part. The fact that real estate prices collapsed and a recession hit also helped. Simply put, there were fewer cranes in the air to cause problems in the first place.

Nevertheless, the ordinance didn’t last long.

Construction companies and trade unions fought back in court and in the Florida Legislature.

A circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County ruled that there was already an organization responsible for regulating cranes, OSHA, and it had the final say on what standards cranes had to be built to. So, local governments couldn’t enter that regulation arena.

But again, OSHA’s obligation is worker safety… that’s it.

Also, a judge in a different location ruled that a very similar approach to regulating cranes by New York City was just fine and not inconsistent with OSHA regulations because of the agency's narrow purview.

But in Miami-Dade County, the higher standards set by Edmonson’s ordinance were thrown out.

The state law that preempted Edmonson's ordinance.

The rest of it, the part that required job sites to have a hurricane plan, that was ultimately killed in the legislature by strong construction industry lobbyists.

“It took them approximately four years to get the state legislators to preempt us,” said Edmonson. “If the state wants to preempt us, fine, but they should [have] put something in place.”

In 2012, the state took away the power of local governments to pass any kind of crane regulation, including for hurricanes.

By the time Irma hit, Edmonson’s ordinance had been gone for about five years already.

And even if it was still in place, it’s unlikely it would have prevented the cranes from breaking the way they did during Irma.

But now, local governments can’t do anything to address new crane issues.

The Three Cranes

An “act of God” is how Frank Bardonaro describes what happened during the storm. He is the chief operating officer of Maxim Crane Works, which owned the three cranes that broke.  It’s one of the largest crane rental companies in the world and had roughly 30 up in Florida during hurricane Irma.

He says there was no negligence or cutting corners and taking each crane down  before a hurricane is just not practical.

A new crane rises above Rebuffo's apartment building.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

After the storm, the company conducted its own investigation into why the cranes fell -- OSHA and the city of Miami helped out, but neither was in charge.

Bardonaro says they believe there was a series of updrafts---winds that moved up underneath the arm of the crane making it twist and snap.

“They're designed to spin, but they aren't designed to be raised up,” said Bardonaro.

The new crane at the Gran Paraiso building.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

He says they’re trying to find some kind of preventative measure: "Should there be other factors that go into erecting and maintaining tower cranes that do consider updraft possibility," said Bardonaro, "because that's never been addressed.”

There’s nobody that’s forcing them to come up with new protocols, or anyone tasked with holding them accountable for doing so.

Not OSHA, not the city, not the county.

Commissioner  Edmonson heard about the cranes breaking while she was riding out the storm at a friend’s house, “I said ‘uh huh, I told you so.’ That's exactly what came to my mind. I was on the right track.”

So now again, she’s trying to figure out a way to regulate cranes by pushing  state legislators to do something. She introduced a resolution urging the state to repeal the pre-emption law.

But so far, there’s no bill being considered in Tallahassee having anything to do with cranes.