The wildly swinging booms of three cranes at under-construction residential buildings in South Florida bent and collapsed in Hurricane Irma’s heavy winds Sunday.
The first to go was a crane at an apartment building in downtown Miami around 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Hours later, the winds brought down a second crane at a condo tower in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood, roughly two miles north. A video posted on Twitter showed its boom dangling above the unfinished tower. Then, later in the afternoon, the flailing arm of a crane at an oceanfront Fort Lauderdale condo brought the number of accidents to three. Perhaps reflecting the size of its portfolio, the firm behind the Edgewater and Fort Lauderdale projects is the region’s biggest developer, the Related Group.
No injuries were immediately reported at any of the three sites. Downtown Miami, normally a bustling hub of tourists and office workers, and Edgewater, a popular residential neighborhood lined with condo towers, were empty at street level because of the storm. So was Fort Lauderdale beach. Before Irma hit, the city of Miami warned residents who live near cranes that the storm could bring grave danger. There are more than 20 construction cranes within city limits.
The cranes are a symbol of the luxury real estate development that drives South Florida’s economy, attracting millions of dollars in foreign investment, even as home prices soar out of reach for locals. The construction industry has fought against stricter regulation of the towering cranes.
After the first accident, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said the city should consider stricter codes for cranes, even if it comes at the expense of building projects that generate revenue for the city.
“It's development in the future versus tropical storms or hurricanes,” Regalado said. “We just cannot gamble on the wind.”
All three arms stayed attached to the upright towers of their cranes, meaning they did not fall down to the street.
CRANES GO DOWN
Two Miami firefighters watched the boom of the first crane snap, sending bricks toppling to the ground at 300 Biscayne Blvd., just down the street from Miami’s iconic Freedom Tower, on Sunday morning.
The apartment building, which holds 464 rental apartments, is named Vice.
Its boom is still connected to the tower of the crane by a cable. On Sunday afternoon, it was hanging partially over the building’s side. People living nearby were urged by city officials to seek shelter in their own buildings away from the side facing the fallen crane, or in a stairwell.
“Tomorrow we'll assess the damage and try to get the engineering part of it corrected,” said Miami’s Deputy Building Director Maurice Pons. “The general contractor has been contacted and he is setting up a team of wreckers to secure the tower.”
John Moriarty & Associates of Florida is the contractor. An executive there did not immediately return a request for comment.
The second accident happened at a project being built by Miami’s biggest developer, the Related Group. The condo, called Gran Paraiso, is at 600 NE 30th Ter. A Related executive did not respond to a request for comment. Brad Meltzer, president of general contractor Plaza Construction, issued the following statement: "Hurricane Irma was an unprecedented and historic catastrophic storm. Every effort to safeguard life in the path of Irma was taken, including the mandatory evacuation ordered by government officials. The crane engineers and crane supplier took measures to secure the crane. The crane's boom was nevertheless damaged due to high winds. Plaza will cooperate with all governmental bodies, as well as the crane supplier and engineers to investigate and establish repair requirements to put the crane back in a state of good repair. "
The Fort Lauderdale collapse took place at Auberge Beach Residences and Spa at 2200 N. Ocean Blvd. around 5 p.m., according to a spokeswoman for general contractor Moss Construction. “A crew will be dispatched to secure the crane as soon as weather conditions improve,” said Jeanmarie Ferrara in an email. It is also a Related project.
Fort Lauderdale Police Division Chief Tim Heiser confirmed the crane went down but said downed trees and a backlog of calls made the site difficult for his officers to reach. No other details about the accident were available Sunday night.
The arms of construction cranes are designed to spin around like weather vanes in heavy winds. They can generally sustain winds of up to 145 miles per hour. Miami International Airport reported sustained winds of nearly 50 miles an hour and gusts above 70 mph at 9 a.m. Sunday. The city instructed the developers to remove the cranes and secure the sites after the hurricane passes.
After the first accident, city officials rushed up to the fourth floor of the city’s police college, which houses Miami's emergency operations center, to observe the damage at Vice.
Regalado, Commissioner Francis Suarez and building director Pons then rode in an armored SWAT vehicle to the construction site. Regalado — who is not an engineer — said the crane does not appear to have caused any structural damage to the building’s exterior.
But in a phone conference with city officials, Moriarty explained that the crane’s counterweight had fallen through the interior of the construction site, piercing the building’s upper plate.
Ten years ago, building interests fought Miami-Dade County’s effort to impose a requirement that cranes be able to sustain 140 mph winds. The ordinance passed in 2008, during downtown's first high-rise boom, but was tossed out on a legal challenge.
“The crane industry opposed it,” said Audrey Edmonson, a Miami-Dade County commissioner whose district includes large areas of downtown Miami.
Edmonson sponsored the crane ordinance, only to see it defeated in court.
The industry coalition that sued to block the law included South Florida's chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America and the Florida Crane Owners Council.
They argued regulating cranes only involves the safety of construction workers, so federal workplace rules take precedence. Miami-Dade insisted construction cranes posed public-safety risks and should be controlled by local rules. “Falling cranes kill people,” the county said in its suit. “Workers and non-workers alike.”
But a federal appeals court sided with the construction industry, dismissing the county's “public safety” concerns about cranes in storms as unpersuasive. “Furthermore, the County failed to identify a single incident in which a crane accident injured a member of the general public during a hurricane,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit wrote in a 2010 decision.
Trade groups involved with the case could not be reached Sunday. Eddie Gonzalez, an assistant county attorney who helped on the case, described the legislation as a storm-safety measure.
“It was to secure the cranes,” he said. “We fought it in court. Unfortunately, we didn't win.”
SECURING THE SITES
Kevin Maloney, founder of Vice’s New York-based developer, Property Markets Group, said his firm was working to secure the boom.
“We’re trying to find out what its potential path downward is and how to secure it,” Maloney said by phone. The tower is more than 25 stories high and was set to be completed next fall. Expected monthly lease rates range from $1,600 for a studio to $4,200 for a three-bedroom apartment. PMG is planning a luxury condo project at the same site.
Gran Paraiso is part of a four-tower complex being developed by Related in Edgewater. Prices for units range from $600,000 to $2 million, according to the Real Deal.
Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban said the weather remained too dangerous Sunday to send crews out to dismantle the cranes.
“The weather has deteriorated to the point where we're not comfortable sending anybody out to even evaluate the situation. So our only concern right now is the protection of life, not necessarily property,” Zahralban said. “We're going to take a look at all the exposures or buildings in close proximity. We're going to contact those buildings to make them aware of what occurred. We're not going evacuate them … but we're going to move them to a safer location in the building.”
No official cause has been determined for the collapse of the cranes. “Who’s to say a tornado didn’t go through there?” asked Pons, the deputy building director. Six blocks away from the Edgewater accident, heavy winds ripped the roof off a building, according to a video confirmed as authentic by Miami officials.
The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the collapses, assisted by the city building department.
Tenants with addresses in buildings surrounding Vice were dialed by a reverse 911 system that robocalled numbers with an alert warning of the crane’s collapse.
On Wednesday, following a news conference, Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso said there's not much the city or contractors involved in the projects could have done ahead of the hurricane to take down cranes.
“It's not like you can call ‘Pepito’ in Hialeah and he can come take it down. There are few companies that can do it,” he said. “You have to call the company ahead of time. They have to come and prepare.”
“It's an intense procedure and to take 25 cranes down in a matter of four or five days? It's not going to happen. It's not feasible.”
“Don't be next to a crane.”
Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to reflect Vice is an apartment tower, not a condo.