On shaky ground

Published June 30, 2021
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT was 1:30 in the morning on June 24, 2021. The tide was low and the moon was full. Hundreds of people were sleeping in their beds in Champlain Towers South. The 12-storey building faced the ocean in Surfside, a strip of reclaimed land off the Atlantic coast in Florida that is dotted with similar high-rise dwellings. Witnesses say that a rumble was heard before the actual collapse. The middle of the building fell first and then in 30 seconds, moments which must have been excruciating for those awoken by the crash in the portion left standing. Then another portion of the building collapsed. If those sleeping in the part that fell died without realising the horror of the moment, those in the part that fell down next would have known just what was happening.

Rescuers have searched the rubble for survivors — a near futile quest. News has now emerged that a report prepared in 2018 found major structural damage in the building. In the parking lot that was under the building, load-bearing beams and pylons had cracks in them. The pool deck was leaking water to the parking level below it causing damage to the very beams that were holding up the building. Lawsuits have been filed and Miami-Dade County where Surfside is located as well as the federal government plan an inquiry. The investigation, National Public Radio reported, is expected to go on for years.

It is impossible to watch the coverage of this ill-fated ocean-facing building without shuddering at what (quite literally) lies beneath similar high-rises being constructed along the Karachi coast. Building collapses are not unusual in Pakistan. Most occur in poor slums and hovels where seamy contractors use degraded material to erect structures — that second floor or that third addition. All this is done without attention to any sort of public safety regulations or concerns. Last year, a building fell in Sukkur, followed by a five-storey building in Karachi’s Lyari area. Other buildings also collapsed after last year’s monsoon rains including one that killed 10 people. Those rains promise to return this year but the Sindh Building Control Authority has (like all other agencies in Karachi) made few efforts to ensure that buildings with structural problems are condemned and evacuated. There is no preparation or inspection.

Even more concerning is the situation of the multistorey developments that are popping up along the Karachi coastline. Last year, a report in this paper titled ‘Reclaiming Karachi’s edge’ laid out the problems with building structures on coastal reclaimed land including in Defence Housing Authority Phase VIII. Here there are a number of hugely well-advertised, upscale high-rises, like the one that tumbled to the ground in Florida. It is unclear what sort of safety standards have been set for these structures in their plans and how well these have been implemented in their construction. Nor is it clear if any continuing inspections are planned so that the building structures are safe for habitation even when they are no longer new.

It is impossible to watch the coverage of Champlain Towers, Florida, without shuddering at the thought of what lies beneath Karachi’s coastal high-rises.

There’s little evidence of what the high-rise planners are doing to ensure that the proliferating projects along Karachi’s coastline don’t sink into the shifting sands on which they are constructed. Struc­tures that face the ocean undergo relentless battering by the wind, sea and sand. Buildings in Dubai, (which some emerging building projects have been designed to mimic) very likely have funds on hand to maintain the facades and structures of buildings against the relentless corrosion caused by saltwater.

Pakistanis, however, are used to cutting corners, and what they do everywhere they will likely also do in the construction of coastal high-rises. This can result in buildings that are just a bit unstable, a bit shaky, even as the political players that collaborate to make them possible are as entrenched as ever.

It is too late for Champlain Towers and Condominiums in Surfside, Florida. The husk of the building that still remains standing features eerie scenes of a disrupted existence. One visible bedroom shows bunk beds with sheets and pillows, an office chair. Firefighters who are searching through the rubble and finding stuffed toys are lining them up in an impromptu shrine to the children that have perished. It’s a tough task; the day after the building collapsed, rains soaked everything making it harder to dig into the rubble. Then a treacherous fire broke out filling up the wreckage site with smoke and further hampering efforts to find any possible survivors.

The tragedy in Surfside should be a warning to coastal developers in Karachi. If the government of Sindh, the Defence Housing Authority or any other relevant authority has the plans filed prior to construction they need to be made available for any member of the public to see. Particularly helpful would be a recounting of the measures taken to ensure that there are open and unobstructed exits that people could access in case of a fire or an earthquake.

Over 100 people who lived in Champlain Towers (most living in units that are on the opposite side of where the collapse took place) did manage to escape via the stairwell. Wide, unobstructed and well-marked exits are rare in any building in Karachi and this represents an opportunity for tragedy.

It is unlikely that anyone will be found in the tightly packed rubble that the Champlain Towers now is. A lot could have been done to save the building and the people in it, but it wasn’t. Repairs continued to be delayed. Cracks, fissures and even loud noises coming through the walls were ignored. The result is there for everyone to see. Karachi’s high-rise dwellers, particularly those close to the ocean, should take heed. The magnetism and majesty of the ocean lulled the inhabitants of one ill-fated coastal high-rise to ignore the signs and the warnings that were all around them. The rest of us must not be so mesmerised, so oblivious to the cruelties of the ever-shifting sands and the buildings that are constructed upon them.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2021

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