As the gruesome task of recovering the dead from the June 24 collapse of a tragically decrepit -- but very much occupied -- condo building near Miami grinds to an end, the questions remain: How did it happen, and what can prevent this from happening again?
Municipal governments across the country are taking on that issue and, in some cases, taking action. For instance, CNN reports that emergency inspections of aging buildings have prompted evacuations in at least four cases outside of South Florida. (Another condo building just seven miles from the Champlain Tower South building in Surfside was also evacuated.)
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that while Florida's regulations for such buildings are among the nation's strictest, slack enforcement and compliance has allowed some building owners to ignore or delay action on serious maintenance issues.
That could be changing. Los Angeles County, for one, says it's launching engineering inspections of older high-rises in the Marina del Ray area and will begin the process of doing the same across all unincorporated areas in the huge market.
"The horrible tragedy that unfolded in Surfside, Florida, last month was a wake-up call for all of us," supervisor Janice Hahn told The Orange County Register after the county's Board of Supervisors approved the action. "When word got out that happened, the first thought on people's minds was, could this happen here in L.A. County?"
Rules vary widely, especially after the building is built
Condo owners and potential owners don't normally think about hiring their own structural engineers. Local governments are generally seen as providers of that kind of protection and oversight of builders and buildings, including the kinds of things that happen during the permit process.
However, codes and rules -- and how well they're enforced -- can vary widely. For instance, in Denver, a building either under construction or undergoing remodeling or renovations will be inspected multiple times, officials there say.
"For a high-rise apartment building, you can expect anywhere from five inspections to 500 inspections, depending on the height of the building and what's going in it," Laura Swartz, communications director for the City and County of Denver's Office of Community Planning and Development, told Fox 31 2 News.
But what happens after they're done is another story. For instance, there is no requirement, either locally or from the state, for post-construction inspections in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where high-rise condos and hotels line the shore, a city spokesman said. Public information director Mark Kruea said the city doesn't have to inspect unless it's advised of a problem or receives a complaint or inquiry about an issue.
″Code enforcement (adherence to life safety standards) is a top priority for Myrtle Beach," Mark Kruea told The (Charleston) Post & Courier. "We do fire inspections on a regular basis, but the point of a strong building code (which we have) is to see that the building is built correctly, using the proper materials, in the first place."
The Millionacres bottom line
The Surfside disaster and its aftermath may be a wake-up call for real estate investors around the country. For instance, will it hurt the market overall for buying into such high rises?
Memories are short, and political resistance to regulation -- especially new rules -- is strong in many areas, so it may well be unlikely that the Surfside disaster leads to a surge in new codes and the enforcement of existing ones.
However, the human and economic toll may be enough to prompt change in some places. And either way, individual owners of such condos -- whether they live there or use them as rental properties -- would be well-served by boning up on what the rules are and, even more importantly, the actual conditions of their buildings and how those are addressed.
Of course, the Surfside collapse happened while owners were grappling with huge repair bills that followed revelations of the building's dire condition that were highlighted by inspectors as the structure was undergoing occupancy recertification.
Money stood in the way of repairs, but the ultimate cost was indeed higher.