Green School professor joins federal team investigating Surfside collapse
Disaster resilience expert to lead interviews of residents, family members, first responders and government officials
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has added a disaster resilience expert from FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs to the team of investigators looking into what caused the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside.
As the social science team leader for NIST’s evidence preservation project, N. Emel Ganapati, an associate professor of public policy and administration, will lead interviews, focus groups and surveys of residents, family members, first responders, government officials and others with knowledge of the building’s condition, collapse and response activities.
“Hearing from a variety of people who have different perspectives and memories of the event, and of the building over time, can help fill any holes in our understanding that quantitative measurements cannot fill,’’ said Ganapati, who also leads the Laboratory for Social Science Research at FIU’s International Hurricane Center, part of the Extreme Events Institute.
“I am thrilled to be named to such a prestigious group,” Ganapati added. “First, based on our investigation of why the Champlain Towers South Condominium collapsed, we will have a chance to make policy recommendations for building codes, standards and practices for new construction and existing housing stock that could be adopted by different levels of government in the U.S.”
“Our investigation will also lead to recommendations for better emergency response and evacuation procedures in the wake of building failures, which will inform the work of first response agencies as well as homeowner associations,’’ she added. “Finally, the interviews we will conduct with the survivors may be an uplifting experience for them as they will allow them to share their lived experiences in their own words.
Ganapati’s research is dedicated to helping communities become more resilient by studying the vulnerabilities and capabilities of those affected by disasters and those who serve them (for example, first responders). She has conducted significant research around disaster recovery, mitigation and resilience efforts, including the 2017 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as well as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 and 2021 and Turkey in 1999. She was recognized by the 10th Year Golcuk Earthquake Commemoration Committee due to her contributions to the recovery of Golcuk, the epicenter of the deadly quake in Turkey.
“As terrible as the Surfside event was, this appointment highlights Professor Ganapati’s stellar reputation, credibility and courage,’’ said Rich Olson, director of FIU’s Extreme Events Institute, who works closely with Ganapati. “Learning from disasters is crucial to the future safety of all of us, and I am proud to see my friend and colleague on such an important investigative team.”
Ganapati, who holds a master’s degree in planning from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in planning from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, joins a team of accomplished experts on the investigation, which is expected to take at least two years.
NIST highlighted Ganapati and her work on a video posted on its news website.
“This is one of the most complex building failure investigations ever undertaken,” said Judith Mitrani-Reiser, who co-leads the investigation. “We have an incredible team of experts who are working diligently to study the evidence that will help us understand exactly what occurred at Champlain Towers South and how we can make buildings safer.”
This will be the fifth investigation NIST has conducted under the National Construction Safety Team Act passed in 2002. The others included the World Trade Center disaster, the 2003 Station nightclub fire, the 2011 Joplin tornado investigation, and the Hurricane Maria investigation, which is ongoing. The completed investigations have led to changes in building codes, standards, engineering practices, emergency response and emergency communications standards and practices.
The Surfside team will release a draft report for public comment once it has determined the likely cause of the collapse and developed any recommendations for improvements to building standards, codes and practices.