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Buildings Do Fall Like This In America. Will America's Corrective Culture Stand?

 Search-and-rescue workers at the Surfside condo collapse site this week (left); a Haitian fireman carries a child from a collapsed school in Haiti in 2008.
David Santiago (left) Ramon Espinosa
Miami Herald (left) AP
Search-and-rescue workers at the Surfside condo collapse site this week (left); a Haitian fireman carries a child from a collapsed school in Haiti in 2008.

COMMENTARY Americans take it for granted they can keep negligence disasters from becoming as frequent as Latin America's. Maybe too much for granted now.

Last Thursday morning, shortly after the Surfside condo collapse, I braced myself for the inevitable but erroneous bromide. It didn’t take long.

“Buildings in America don’t fall down like this!” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett exclaimed shortly after the sun rose over the horrific ruins of the 12-story Champlain Towers South.

You could feel everyone in America nodding and tweeting in collective, comforting agreement.

And everyone was wrong.

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Buildings do fall down like this in America; they do shatter without the aid of natural disaster or terrorism. In the past century there have been several deadly instances. Perhaps none as deadly as Surfside is likely to be. But American exceptionalism does not exempt us from self-inflicted catastrophes like this any more than it inoculates our public officials from the urge to plunder pension funds or keeps bad cops from choking unarmed Black men to death.

And thinking that it does — chanting the default mantra that “this doesn’t happen in America!” every time it does happen in America — only serves to undermine the genuinely exceptional American thing that happens when something like this happens in America.

READ MORE: To Rebuild From Its Disastrous Earthquake, Haiti Has to Rebuild Its Disastrous Governance

What sets America apart from most of our neighbors in the Americas is our institutional capacity to right the wrongs behind such disasters in a timely and confident enough manner that they don’t happen here as frequently and cavalierly as they happen elsewhere in our hemisphere.

If I didn’t believe in that kernel of American exceptionalism then I’d be a bald hypocrite every time I pen commentaries like one I wrote last year about Haiti.

What's not supposed to happen in America are the institutional failures that make tragedy like this so numbingly commonplace for Haitians or Brazilians. But is that exceptionalism waning?

On the 10th anniversary of Haiti’s apocalyptic earthquake, I pointed to two private school buildings that collapsed in Port-au-Prince — on their own — in November 2008, 14 months before the quake. Almost 100 children were killed in one of them. The cause in both calamities was monstrous neglect in construction, codes, accountability, you name it. Haitian prosecutors couldn’t charge those responsible because those responsible hadn’t violated one article of Haitian statute.

In fact, in the aftermath of those tragedies Haiti did little if anything to harden its criminally lax building standards – which is why so many Haitians were then crushed to death in January 2010 in the magnitude-7 quake.


That is what’s not supposed to happen in America — not the tragedy, but the institutional failures that make the tragedy so seemingly and numbingly commonplace for Haitians or Mexicans or Brazilians.

It’s why realtors tell me Surfside won’t likely make Latin Americans halt the Miami condo-buying binge they’ve been on in this century. Compared to what they’re sadly accustomed to seeing in so many of their countries, the Champlain Towers implosion is indeed such a rare U.S. event they probably won’t blink at buying a unit next door in its aftermath.

“Unfortunately we’ve had much worse and more regular building tragedies in Brazil” and South America, Brazilian-born Aventura realtor Uiane Lim reminded me. Just last month a residential building collapsed in Rio de Janeiro, killing two. Another tumbled in an adjacent neighborhood two years ago. It's unlikely either edifice had been inspected.

 Brazilian search and rescue workers comb a 4-story residential building that collapsed in Rio de Janeiro last month.
Brazilian search and rescue workers comb a 4-story residential building that collapsed in Rio de Janeiro last month.

But Latin Americans buying condos here have faith that someone is minding the store; or that if someone wasn’t — as looks to be the case in Surfside — someone will be pretty damn soon, and pretty damn vigilantly, after a house of cards comes crashing down with such lethal but avoidable results.

We take that for granted here. They can’t there.

Yet I worry 21st-century America — especially 21st-century Miami — takes it too much for granted today. So much so that we’ve lost our edge when it comes to correcting our own moments of monstrous neglect.

You’d have thought the collapse of the Miami-Dade College parking garage under construction in Doral nine years ago, killing four people, wouldn’t have been followed a mere six years later by the Florida International University bridge collapse that killed six. Or that a scant three years after that a condo complex would so hellishly pancake on one of our heavenly beaches, possibly killing more than 160.

U.S., Florida and Miami-Dade officialdom need to dispel those doubts now with stronger codes, accountability — you name it. With exclamation points. But not by exclaiming, “Buildings in America don’t fall down like this!”

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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