At least 11 people are dead and some 150 still unaccounted for as the search-and-rescue mission following the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Florida’s Surfside suburb continues into a sixth day.
The personnel needed when a big building falls down will almost certainly exceed the number of rescue workers an individual city or even state retains.
Already experts are arguing about who should have done what regarding the apparent failure of the complex’s structural integrity. But a second fight is brewing about who should have called whom when. And unlike the engineering of a single building, this controversy is relevant for all search-and-rescue missions for major American disasters.
While the causes of building collapses are as diverse as the distance between the World Trade Center and Champlain Towers, the imperative for those trying to minimize human loss and suffering is the same: intensive pre-planning that ensures a rapid, coordinated response adequate for the scale of the disaster.
With America’s local-state-federal divide, however, the country simply cannot guarantee a quick and efficient response to mass-casualty disasters as things now stand. When every minute is crucial to saving lives, our inability to mandate an instant call-up of resources across city and state lines is literally killing people.
The tragedy unfolding in Miami seems to reflect the inadequacies of the system we have in place. Hannah Dreier of The Washington Post questioned why it took Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis almost a full day to issue the necessary declarations to bring federal disaster response teams to the beachfront scene: “FEMA was ready to deploy to the condo collapse almost immediately, and included the crisis in its daily briefing, but didn't get permission from Gov. DeSantis to get on the ground for a full day.”
DeSantis’ office fired back that the necessary declarations had been issued at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, an hour after the relevant municipal authorities had issued their declaration, without which the state, the governor’s office argued, could not move forward on its own.
The initial collapse occurred at 1:30 a.m., so whatever caused the delay in the chain of procedures required to bring additional resources to the site, the result was that any injured people trapped in the rubble of the 13-story building were waiting for 16 hours before all of the paperwork was complete.
In Florida, municipalities retain a high level of autonomy, as states do in their relationship with the federal government. Legislators have been wary of establishing protocols that transgress this principle. So even in the case of mass-casualty emergencies, some localities must go through time-devouring bureaucratic steps meant to create firewalls to stop governmental overreach.
Answering the question “Are we big enough to go this alone?” should not be left in the hands of inexperienced elected officials. Each city and state should have an emergency plan that automatically triggers federal coordination and levels of support, particularly an adequate number of trained search-and-rescue workers, based on the square footage of the site or the estimated number of people trapped inside or any number of other objective tools that assess the scope of the catastrophe.
The wreckage in these cases is shifting and unstable, meaning clearing it out needs to be done in a painstaking manner; most of the debris has to be moved with relatively lightweight tools because even the presence of work vehicles with their engines idling can send vibrations through the site that lead to cave-ins and further destruction.
So in practically any circumstance, search-and-rescue operations after building collapses require a large number of hands due to the slow, careful work. The personnel needed when a big building falls down will almost certainly exceed the number of rescue workers an individual city or even state retains.
An efficient response requires multiple well-coordinated and trained teams working to reach survivors before they succumb to injury and exposure. But even after the 16 hours of paperwork processing, it took until Sunday for even Florida to complete deploying all of its eight state-level teams to the site.
In Surfside, there appeared to be little-to-no mechanism in place to integrate reinforcements or volunteers within the first-responder units initially working at the scene. Fewer qualified hands-on-deck also increases the amount of time that rescuers are expected to work at elevated stress levels.
Data on post-traumatic stress disorder emphasizes that insufficient “down time” increases the likelihood of PTSD among first responders, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting shift lengths. The 12-hour shifts those in Miami are now working are the CDC’s maximum possible recommended duration to reduce lasting psychological trauma.
There are also important considerations for victims and their families. Miami, with its diverse communities, is a prime example of how search-and-rescue expertise must extend beyond the technical details of rescue and recovery to include cultural education.
Champlain Towers housed a large population of nonnative English speakers, requiring additional language skills for rescuers and those contacting family members. In addition, the retiree population demands geriatric trauma care, an underserved and underresearched field.
The Orthodox Jewish population of the towers, meanwhile, needs increased cultural sensitivity regarding body recovery and burial practices that include a religious mandate to recover all human remains for burial and an aversion to leaving dead bodies unattended prior to the burial ceremony.
This is not simply a question of making life more bearable for survivors; it is about prioritizing their mental health alongside their physical health. After responding to the 1999 earthquake in Izmir, Turkey, members of the Israel Defense Force’s Homefront Search and Rescue Unit — a unit that arrived in Miami over the weekend— concluded that for deeply traditional Muslim women, being rescued from a collapsed building by strange men while wearing pajamas was itself a secondary trauma. (Like the Surfside disaster, that earthquake struck while most people were asleep.)
Data on post-traumatic stress disorder emphasizes that insufficient “down time” increases the likelihood of PTSD among first responders.
The homefront unit recognized that the same situation could occur within both traditional Jewish and Muslim communities in Israel itself and worked to expand the ranks of female rescue workers. Federal planning that provides for the integration of specialized volunteers — whether they have additional language skills, cultural competencies or specific knowledge sets — allows for a more agile disaster response to meet the needs of varied populations.
The United States should have figured out how to get rapid coordination for mass tragedies right after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, events that spurred some changes but fell short of generating a coherent plan. It’s urgent that we finally do so now given that increased population density, natural disasters, changing climate patterns and the globalization of terror all make the likelihood of a repetition of the same scenario — scores of people trapped in a collapsed multistory building — all too high.