South Florida’s strict building codes have put a halt to most restaurants and bars building decks that jut out over open water. But the ones that remain have been decaying for decades in salty, murky water under a blazing sun without any oversight.
The main reason: Many cities follow the South Florida Building Code, which requires a review of commercial property 40 years after a structure is built, then every 10 years after.
In fact, following the deck collapse at Shuckers Bar and Grill in North Bay Village, the Miami Herald found that there is no centralized system for informing property owners when an examination is due. A survey of the process shows rules vary by municipality, making deck inspections an inconsistent, confusing and random operation.
Just before halftime of a June 13 Miami Heat playoff win in San Antonio, Shuckers’ 120-foot deck snapped like a toothpick, pitching some 100 cheering Heat fans into Biscayne Bay.
Miraculously, no one died as they plunged into four feet of dark, debris-filled water. More than a dozen people were injured; 15 were taken to area hospitals. When rescuers arrived, they found the patio at the popular eatery had collapsed in a V-shape, with the seawall ripping completely away from the main restaurant.
Miami-Dade records show the deck was built some time in the 1960s — and North Bay Village records show it has not been inspected since.
North Bay Village Chief Building Official Raul Rodriguez signed off on the 40-year recertification earlier this year, apparently unaware that the deck was not part of the inspection.
Steve Jawitz, the licensed engineer who did the work, said he never looked at the deck, and that it was not required.
However, Rodriguez said he assumed the deck was inspected because the South Florida Building Code, which the village follows, requires all building and structures on a property to be inspected after 40 years.
Bureaucracy also is to blame for deteriorating decks. In Miami-Dade, the county sometimes sends out alerts to municipalities that inspections are due on certain buildings. But the actual responsibility lies with the city to contact the property owner. And some city building officials have no idea that properties are due an inspection.
County Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera said his office can generate a list of 40-year-old buildings, but it’s more of a courtesy than a requirement. He said some cities ask for it by email, others through a phone call.
“It’s willy-nilly,” he said.
The inspections must be done by an engineer licensed by the state. The results then are submitted to the city, to be signed off by a building official.
The only exception to the 40-year inspection rule is if a deck is renovated or rebuilt, which requires new permits and inspections.
A day after the Shuckers deck collapse, Rodriguez said it appeared to have succumbed to old age, with salt water deteriorating the concrete, causing the steel rods inside to become corroded.
The South Florida heat, combined with the salty air and water, often weakens decks long before the 40 years are up, “especially when wood is in the water, when all the connections are just rotting away,” said Eugene Santiago, a veteran structural engineer and building chief for the Village of Key Biscayne.
“You have to look for it,” he said.