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FIU interdisciplinary team supporting federal investigation into 2021 Surfside condo collapse
The site of the Champlain Towers South partial collapse in Surfside, Florida. Credit: NIST

FIU interdisciplinary team supporting federal investigation into 2021 Surfside condo collapse

March 27, 2024 at 12:01pm

A team led by the federal government continues to investigate the 2021 partial collapse of Champlain Towers South, the 12-story beachfront condominium in Surfside, Florida, that resulted in 98 deaths and multiple injuries. 

Now an interdisciplinary FIU team will contribute to the search for answers into what caused the disaster, its ramifications and precautions that can be taken to avoid such disasters. With a $900,000 contract from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the university will expand on the social science work begun in 2022 by N. Emel Ganapati, professor of public policy and administration in the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. Ganapati is the project manager for the project, which is being managed by the FIU Extreme Events Institute.

“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 leads the Laboratory for Social Science Research at FIU’s International Hurricane Center, part of the Extreme Events Institute.

“This is an excellent example of FIU’s stellar reputation as a community-engaged university,” said Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute. “We have an interdisciplinary team of researchers investigating an issue of great public importance with far-reaching implications.” 

The team will conduct interviews and focus groups with survivors, eyewitnesses, first responders and others with knowledge of the partial collapse of the building and then the search and rescue, evacuation and recovery operations. The FIU researchers are the only social scientists who are part of the investigative team; the rest are engineers and physical scientists. NIST will use the evidence they collect, as well as archival research, to help shed light on where the collapse initiated and how it progressed, in addition to the history of the building, the site and nearby buildings. The team’s contributions to the investigation could help inform building code changes and policies that would enhance the safety and structural integrity of condominium buildings.

A disaster resilience expert, Ganapati is joined by FIU fellow faculty Mark Macgowan, professor of social work and the associate dean of academic affairs at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, who will support social science evidence collection; Ronald Fisher, professor of psychology, who will provide guidance on memory-enhancing interviewing techniques; and Keith Revell, associate professor of public policy and administration, an urban historian who will conduct archival research and historical interviews. Two FIU Green School alumni are also part of the team: Kaila Witkowski MPA ’20, PhD ’22, now an assistant professor of public administration at Florida Atlantic University and Jack Vertovec PhD ’21, who is with the Behavioral Science Research Institute in Coral Gables. Both FAU and the Institute will have subcontracts from FIU as part of the project.

“This is a truly interdisciplinary project,” Ganapati said. “I have participated in many interdisciplinary projects, but I have never seen such a high level of collaboration in any project I have been involved in. The team is amazing and we work very closely with one another.

“It's a very complex investigation – it's like a puzzle with thousands of pieces. NIST has all kinds of physical evidence that they have documented and measured and now we're collecting social science evidence. Everything will be put together to tell a coherent story so that we understand what really happened.”

The FIU team started its work last September and will continue through December 2024, with its report submitted by year’s end. Ganapati said that the team’s efforts will inform a larger NIST report that will be released for public comment and that could ultimately lead to changes in building codes and standards and evacuation and rescue practices in the U.S. and abroad.

This is NIST’s fifth technical investigation of a disaster under the National Construction Safety Team Act: The first three were the World Trade Center collapse in 2001 caused by the terrorist attack, the Station Nightclub Fire in Warwick, RI in 2003 and the Joplin, MO tornado in 2011. In addition to the Champlain Towers South investigation, NIST’s other active investigation is of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

“It is a great honor to be working on this project, especially under the guidance of Dr. Ganapati,” said FIU alumna Kaila Witkowski. “She is an incredible researcher and to be able to join the team under her leadership is a privilege. This investigation is so important to creating a safer community here and in other parts of the country.”