I respond to disasters like Surfside condo collapse. Now we face the painful aftermath.

·6 min read

It has been more than 40 days since the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. For the first responders and government officials, it seems like just 40 hours. For the families of the missing, more like 40 weeks. While the media coverage has faded, the loss has not. From my experience, I can tell everyone involved that it won’t get any better.

I have spent most of my life responding to sudden unexpected mass deaths – bombings, fires, natural disasters, and plane crashes. In my lifetime I have responded to two events – the 2004 tsunami and 2010 Haitian earthquake – that have killed more than a quarter million people in a matter of minutes. Events like these and how we manage them have enormous lifelong consequences for the survivors, the families of the deceased, the responders and the communities in which they occur. Far too many times I have watched as people react to a major crisis but fail to manage the consequences, making these events much harder than they already are.

The sad fact of events like these is that it is possible for leaders to make them harder. No one trying to help does it intentionally, but it happens.

Support for responders turns to indifference. Unrealistic expectations about rescue lead to a sense of failure and anger. Revelations about building maintenance turns families against other families. It’s painful to watch, not just because of the immense sorrow for those involved but because the consequences are predictable. Actions taken now can make it easier in the long run. Just like the apparent problems with the building, they won’t solve themselves and failure to act doesn’t end well.

A rescuer has to save his own life, too

After the Oklahoma City bombing, one police officer and one assistant prosecutor committed suicide. A fire department chaplain reported conducting nearly 80 suicide interventions. Besides suicide and attempted suicide of those involved, there is divorce, alcoholism and destructive behavior, all of which must be dealt with.

Responding to a crisis means saving lives and, for the first responders, they’re there to do just that, but lifesaving has a short time span, usually days. There should be a clear delineation between rescue and recovery and a clear change in focus when that happens. While this is upsetting it’s much better in the long run. If not, the collapse will claim lives beyond those who died or were injured.

Surfside Strong stickers and candles are among the items left at a memorial wall as recovery efforts continue at the Champlain Towers South condominium in Florida.
Surfside Strong stickers and candles are among the items left at a memorial wall as recovery efforts continue at the Champlain Towers South condominium in Florida.

It is very hard to stand in front of hundreds of people – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters – and tell them that it is extremely likely there will be no more survivors. You will be accused unfairly of taking their hope. But the job of leaders is not to instill hope endlessly. Their job is to look at the facts and start to set realistic expectations so that people can be prepared for what comes next.

The Backstory: What our reporters saw, heard and experienced at the Florida condo collapse

While that has been done at Surfside, it was done too late. For two long weeks, the mission was search and rescue, rather than search and recovery. What is needed in a situation like the Surfside collapse are clear expectations about what the next steps are, realistic timelines and outcomes and, most importantly, an understanding of who is doing what.

Transparent steps forward

To begin there is still the recovery of the deceased, and their return to families. This will likely take weeks. There should be a plan to recover and return whatever personal property can be saved – sentimental items like photographs, jewelry, mementos. All of it will have great meaning and priceless value for those left behind.

In addition to the recovery of the bodies and personal effects, there is need for a complete and transparent investigation. To hear people talking today, a conclusion has already been reached just by looking at pictures of the basement and reviewing online building plans. This is not helpful to families or the public, because it sets expectations that we should have an official answer very quickly and, if we don’t, it must be because people are hiding things.

USA TODAY Investigations: These Surfside condo owners survived a harrowing disaster. Now they're forced to battle big insurers.

In reality, an investigation should involve people at the local, state and federal level. It should involve the collection and testing of evidence, a review of plans, permits, inspections and videos of the collapse among other things.

Robert A. Jensen in Key West, Florida in January 2021.
Robert A. Jensen in Key West, Florida in January 2021.

In July 1981, when portions of walkways in Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel collapsed killing 113 people, the United States Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards (now called National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST) sent investigators to Kansas City to assist. They worked alongside other investigators to complete a 378-page report, which was issued in May 1982, 10 months after the collapse. This is the type of report that should be undertaken at Surfside to clearly explain what happened.

A timeline also needs to be set for the settlements. These will be complex and long, drawn-out and painful. Already, Surfside residents are having trouble with insurance companies. This process will also be much more financially costly than it needs to be because there are always at least three costs in a lawsuit: the amount of compensation to those who have suffered loss, the cost of the attorneys that represent them and the cost of the attorneys representing those responsible, or more likely their insurers.

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I have never seen an event like this being caused by a single factor. Usually, they are caused by multiple errors, which means accountability will be spread out. There shouldn’t be more money spent to reach a settlementn the value of the actual settlement.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, we had a successful mediation process to distribute compensation funds and to provide access to money for immediate needs such as housing and all the normal expenses people have. Similarly, Florida needs to make it easy to establish a settlement process that is initially funded by the building insurer and government. People can opt out of it, but once they understand the full cost of litigation, they will realize that the mediation route is much easier.

Litigation is an extension of rage, having an attorney for complex legal issues is a good idea, but it should be to check documents, not to argue for something you can’t get back.

The biggest job of those at Surfside who are now leading the effort is twofold. They must care for individual needs while still focusing on the big picture. The consequences of the collapse don’t end with the recovery of the bodies. In truth, for many, they never end, but they can be made easier. When the ability to save lives ends, the best thing you can do is not make a tragedy worse than it already is.

Robert A. Jensen is the chairman of Kenyon International Emergency Services and author of the forthcoming book, "Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living," coming from St. Martin’s Press in September 2021.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Surfside condo collapse: Make the aftermath as painless as possible

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