One of the coolest stories I’ve ever heard is about a bank building that was constructed back in the Carter administration. Snuggle up and I’ll tell it as I heard it, but be advised: All of this is really about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the political party he seeks someday to lead, but only if a famously truculent occasional resident (and recently defeated president) decides to spit the bit. Trust me; it all comes around in the end.
In 1977, the skyline of New York City was graced with the arrival of a new and refreshingly unique building. Designed by architects Hugh Stubbins, Emery Roth & Sons and structural engineer William LeMessurier, the Citigroup Center — formerly the Citicorp Center, and known to most as the “Citibank Building” — stands out from the crowd in that packed cityscape.
Gleaming white, with its unique roof peaked at a 45-degree angle, the Citibank Building was constructed on huge stilts that make up the bottom nine floors of the structure; the builders chose stilts to accommodate the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which occupied a corner of the building’s footprint on the ground level.
“But rather than putting the stilts in the corners, they had to be located at the midpoint of each side to avoid the church,” reported Slate in 2014. “Having stilts in the middle of each side made the building less stable, so LeMessurier designed a chevron bracing structure — rows of eight-story V’s that served as the building’s skeleton. The chevron bracing structure made the building exceptionally light for a skyscraper, so it would sway in the wind. LeMessurier added a tuned mass damper, a 400-ton device that keeps the building stable.”
The Citibank Building was a true feather in the caps of its designers and constructors, until a year later, when a junior staffer of LeMessurier received a telephone call from an undergraduate architecture student Diane Hartley. Hartley told the staffer that, if her calculations were correct, the Citibank Building was unstable, especially in what are called “cornering winds” — winds that strike the corners of the structure rather than face on. In a high enough wind, the building would collapse.
LeMessurier investigated, and sure enough, Hartley was right: The building was vulnerable to collapse in high wind, and hurricane season was coming. What followed was one of the quietest and most effective all-hands-on-deck emergency operations in the history of engineering, beginning with the most important moment: LeMessurier chose to act, and not duck his responsibilities.
The building had to be reinforced, but in a way that did not cause panic for the people who worked within, or for the thousands of other people who lived and worked in the radius of where the 59-story, 915-foot structure might fall. If it went down sideways, the ensuing catastrophe would be unspeakable.
“LeMessurier and his team worked with Citicorp to coordinate emergency repairs,” reported Slate. “With the help of the NYPD, they worked out an evacuation plan spanning a 10-block radius. They had 2,500 Red Cross volunteers on standby, and three different weather services employed 24/7 to keep an eye on potential windstorms. They welded throughout the night and quit at daybreak, just as the building occupants returned to work. But all of this happened in secret, even as Hurricane Ella was racing up the eastern seaboard.”
If you’ve never heard this story before, there’s a reason: The day after the press got a whiff of the operation, workers at every major New York City newspaper went on strike. By the time they resumed work, the crisis had been averted, and the Citigroup Center now stands as one of the strongest and most structurally sound buildings on Earth.
Super-cool, right? Tell that to DeSantis.
“Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that condominiums in Florida are ‘kind of a dime a dozen, particularly in southern Florida,’” reports The Tampa Bay Times, “but he would not commit to any state action to address concerns about the aging buildings, suggesting that Champlain Towers South ‘had problems from the start.’ Speaking after a briefing on Tropical Storm Elsa at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, the governor would not say if he supports calls to require that aging buildings throughout the state be re-certified to assure residents of their structural integrity in the wake of the deadly collapse of the 136-unit high rise in Surfside.”
Workers at the ruins of the collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, have officially abandoned hope of finding anyone alive in the mass of rubble. It is now a recovery mission. The confirmed death toll stands at 60, with 80 people still unaccounted for. Some days ago, one of the rescue workers was required to identify his young daughter when her body was found by a coworker in the wreckage.
A dime a dozen, Governor DeSantis? There are dozens of buildings just like Champlain Towers in and around the Miami-Dade region, and those that were built 40 years ago — as Champlain Towers was — went up in an era when building codes and safety measures took a deep back seat to speedy construction and maximized profit. How about a dime for every one of the dead, now and to come?
Here is your Republican Party, friends and neighbors, in the guise of one who would lead it. A glaring problem with a tangible fix is elbowed aside in favor of laws banning critical race theory and blocking people of color from the voting booth. The party is so consumed with keeping its base riled by way of culture war fights that they have — for a very long time now — utterly forgotten how to govern.
Maybe they never knew. Maybe they just don’t care, until another 150 people get killed when a second shabbily constructed building — sitting on sand in a state that will likely be underwater by the time my daughter retires, if not well before — comes crashing down to earth, then a third and a fourth. There will be more pious words, and the dodge will begin anew.
The rescue of the Citibank Building should be a lesson for Florida and its “What, me worry?” governor. Flawed buildings can be fixed and lives can be saved, but only if authorities choose to act.
But hey, what am I talking about, right? Citibank happened back when this country actually did stuff to help itself. Here in the U.S., we’re not really down with that anymore. Instead, we wait for the other shoe — or building — to drop, so our “leaders” can offer thoughts and prayers while preening for the cameras with the dust of disaster dulling the polish on their shoes.
This article has been updated to reflect the latest casualty numbers from the Surfside collapse.