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Florida Crane Accidents Renew Safety Debate

Sep 13, 2017
Originally published on September 13, 2017 11:59 am

In Miami, residents of two buildings near the site of a collapsed construction crane were forced to evacuate their homes Tuesday.

They're waiting for the damaged crane to be secured on the top of Gran Paraiso, a luxury high-rise condo building that's still under construction. Hurricane Irma snapped off the crane's arm on Sunday and left it dangling ominously, more than 40 stories up in the air.

It's one of three towering construction cranes in South Florida that were broken apart by Hurricane Irma: two in Miami, and a third in nearby Fort Lauderdale. No one was injured, but the storm whipped up a long-running debate about how to balance safety and economic development.

Towering construction cranes are a sign of the booming luxury real estate market in South Florida; there were 25 in the air above Miami when the hurricane hit.

But these latest failures are raising new questions about whether they're safe in major storms. In all three cases, the long arms of the crane snapped loose. At Gran Paraiso, multi-ton counterweights crashed to the sidewalk below.

"We really need to look at this. Because if it had been a direct hit, we could've had cranes down everywhere," said Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes two of the damaged cranes. Russell thinks now is the time to consider new safety rules.

"I don't want to wait until people die, or millions of dollars in damage when cranes come down everywhere unnecessarily, if a regulation can help with that," Russell said.

Miami-Dade County tried to impose tougher regulations on construction cranes a decade ago. But the industry fought the county in court, and won.

Jim Bryson, chairman of the Florida Crane Owners' Council, argues there are already plenty of federal regulations on the books. He was one of the plaintiffs in that suit and is the co-owner of Bryson Crane Rental Service in Daytona Beach, FL.

Bryson says tower cranes are designed to be safe in sustained hurricane-force winds up to 145 miles per hour. But he says you can't prepare for every scenario.

"Nobody exactly knows exactly what that storm could do at any given moment," Bryson said. "It could gust 300 miles per hour within buildings. And nobody would know that could happen. It's just nature."

Plaza Construction, the contractor on Gran Paraiso, called the storm "unprecedented" in a statement. But according to initial indications, top wind speeds from Irma did not exceed 100 miles per hour at Miami International Airport, well below what the damaged construction cranes were expected to withstand.

City investigators say it's too soon to determine exactly why these cranes failed. Before the storm, city manager Daniel Alfonso told member station WLRN that it wasn't practical to take all the cranes in the city down before Irma hit.

"To put up and take down a crane is a very significant effort. Streets have to be closed," Alfonso said. "Another crane has to be brought in. It's not something you can take down in 3 or 4 days. It requires significantly more time."

But Thomas Barth, a crane inspector based in South Carolina, disagrees. He says contractors in Miami could have brought in extra help from out of state to get the cranes down in time. They just chose not to, because that's expensive.

"Everybody knew this storm was coming," Barth said. "Why they didn't do anything? It goes right back to saving money."

The crane industry counters that new regulation would raise the cost of construction, which would be bad for Miami's economy. But City Commissioner Ken Russell, who's also chairman of the Miami Downtown Development Authority, says public safety should be the top priority.

"If those regulations mean it might cost a little more for that crane company, it's worth it," Russell said. "Because we do get hurricanes on a regular basis."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida this weekend, it snapped the arms of three giant construction cranes in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. No one was injured. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, the failures whipped up a long-running debate about how to balance safety and economic development.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Residents of two buildings in Miami were forced to evacuate their homes last night. They're waiting for a construction crane to be secured after it collapsed during Hurricane Irma on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

LINCOLN O'BARRY: This crane snapped about an hour ago.

ROSE: Lincoln O'Barry broadcast this live video on Twitter during the storm. It shows two giant construction cranes on the roof of a luxury high-rise condo building in Miami called Gran Paraiso. The arm of one of them is dangling ominously more than 40 stories up in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

O'BARRY: If you look, you can see the arm just hanging off the roof of the building. And it's swinging back and forth. There's an apartment building with occupants in it below it.

ROSE: This is one of two cranes in Miami that were damaged in the storm along with a third in neighboring Fort Lauderdale. In all three cases, the long arms of the crane snapped loose. At Gran Paraiso, multi-on counterweights crashed to the sidewalk below. Towering construction cranes are a sign of the booming real estate market in South Florida. They were 25 in the air above Miami when the storm hit. But these latest failures are raising new questions about whether they're safe in major storms.

KEN RUSSELL: We really need to look at this because if it had been a direct hit, we could have had cranes down everywhere.

ROSE: Ken Russell is a Miami city commissioner. His district includes two of the damaged cranes. Russell thinks now is the time to consider new safety rules.

RUSSELL: I don't want to wait until people die or millions of dollars in damage when cranes come down everywhere unnecessarily if a regulation can help with that.

ROSE: Miami-Dade County tried to impose tougher regulations on construction cranes a decade ago. But the industry fought the county in court and won. Jim Bryson is chairman of the Florida Crane Owner's Council, one of the plaintiffs in that suit. There are already plenty of federal regulations on the books, he says, and these tower cranes are designed to be safe in sustained hurricane force winds up to 145 miles per hour. But Bryson says, you can't prepare for every scenario.

JIM BRYSON: Nobody knows exactly what that storm can do in any given moment. It could gust at 300 miles an hour between buildings, and nobody would know that could happen. It's just nature.

ROSE: The contractor on the Gran Paraiso building called the storm unprecedented. City investigators say it's too soon to determine exactly why these cranes failed. Before the storm, City Manager Daniel Alfonso told member station WLRN that it wasn't practical to take all the cranes in the city down before Irma hit.

DANIEL ALFONSO: To put up and take down a crane is a very significant effort. Streets have to be closed. Another crane has to be brought in. It's not something you can take down in three or four days. It requires significantly more time.

ROSE: But Thomas Barth disagrees. Barth is a crane inspector based in South Carolina. He says contractors in Miami could have brought in extra help from out of state to get the cranes down in time. They just chose not to because that's expensive.

THOMAS BARTH: Everybody knew this storm was coming. Why they didn't do anything - it goes right back to saving money.

ROSE: The crane industry argues that new regulation would raise the cost of construction, which would be bad for Miami's economy. But City Commissioner Ken Russell and others say the expense might be worth it given the number of hurricanes that blow through Florida.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "NEVER MESS WITH SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.