THE REBAR OF FAITH: REFLECTING ON THE SURFSIDE TOWER COLLAPSE

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Fr Frank Marangos

Source: OINOS Educational Consulting

By Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., F.C.E.P.

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” ~ Georg Hegel

Imagine receiving a startling phone call from a loved one at 1:30 AM? The female voice on the other side of the receiver sounds alarmed. She describes what she sees looking down from her 6th story Miami condo. “The swimming pool is gone!” she cries. “It’s no longer there . . . just a hole in the concrete.” Unfortunately, before you can respond to her comments you hear loud crackling sounds over the cell phone. And then silence . . . nothing!

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This was the experience of a traveling political consultant listening to the voice of his wife who is among those listed as missing after the 40-year old Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Florida collapsed on the morning of June 24th. At last report, 20 were confirmed dead, including two young children, and another 128 are still unaccounted for. Although hope is slowly fading for more survivors, rescue operations continue around the clock.

The Surfside Tragedy forces most to soberly consider several important truths. Life is uncertain. No one knows how much time they have on this earth. While every condo resident most certainly went to bed with plans for the coming day . . . in an instant everything changed while they slept. Finally, while many of us may act as though we will live forever, the condo collapse reminds us of how fragile life truly is!

While the investigation, into what may be the deadliest accidental building collapse in American history, has just begun, experts who have examined video footage of the disaster have already focused on an area of concern at the lowest part of the condominium complex. Their attention has been drawn to the underground parking garage below the pool where an initial failure could have set off the structural avalanche.

Apparently, in 2018, an engineering consultant had discovered what he characterized as “major concrete damage” caused by design flaws and failing waterproofing. A letter to the condominium association warned that if the existing problems were left unrepaired, “the damage would expand exponentially!”

Referred to as “progressive collapse,” the gradual spread of concrete damage could have resulted for a variety of reasons including design flaws and/or lax building codes at the time of construction four decades ago. The structural fiber of the building was largely comprised of reinforced floor slabs of concrete poured around horizontal lengths of steel rebar that provided critical strength when the mixture cured.

More than likely, saltwater and brine-soaked air settled into the pores of the condo and rusted the rebar that is often used to reinforce oceanfront structures. The saltwater air and resulting rust weakened the bonds between the metal and concrete, thereby, creating cracks in vulnerable areas, such as the building’s foundational pilings and apartment balconies.

As the search at Surfside continues, volunteers and trained rescue teams continue to gather from across the Miami-Dade County and beyond the state of Florida. According to one official report, three million pounds of debris have already been removed from the wreckage since the early-morning collapse seven days ago. While no definitive conclusions can be drawn from the surveillance video, some engineers suggest that the structural failure did indeed begin at a specific point at the bottom of the building, perhaps near the pool, the location described by the early morning frantic call of a wife to her husband.

Apart from focusing on if/how the horrific Surfside Condo collapse could have been avoided, the incident recalls a similar International news story about another structure that has been undergoing extensive repairs for decades. The difference with this particular European building, however, is its age. While the Champlain Tower Condo in South in Florida is only 40-years old, the Parthenon, the legendary structure at the peak of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, is over 2,500-years of age.

According to historians, since its construction in 450BC, the Parthenon, the apotheosis of ancient Greek architecture, has withstood a variety of dangers. It has been rocked by earthquakes, set on fire, shattered by exploding gunpowder, looted for its stunning sculptures and defaced by misguided perverts. Amazingly, the ancient Athenian building, whose base is half the size of a football field and has 46 outer columns, some as high as 34 feet, was constructed in just eight or nine years. Its repair, however, is unfortunately taking much longer.

The similarity between the Parthenon and the Surfside Condo is found in their foundational weakness. Both buildings, ancient and relatively young in comparison, are victims of an invisible enemy, namely, rusted iron supports, the rebar hidden in their structural skeletons. The parallel is even more striking when one learns that the Parthenon’s initial restoration effort began in 1898. Unfortunately, instead of employing the engineering technology used by the ancient Greeks, in order to cut costs, the late 19th Century workforce decided to use less expensive crude iron clips.

Remarkably, the original builders knew the danger of such an application. Alternatively, they carefully poured molten lead over the interior metal joints to both cushion the rebar, and, more importantly, protect the structural integrity of the Parthenon from water damage, corrosion, and expansion.

Consequently, less than 100 years after its initial restoration, like the Surfside Condo, the invisible enemy of rust once again jeopardized the Parthenon’s survival. The less expensive metal clips caused the marble slabs to swell and crack to the point of compromising the reliability of the 2,500-year old building. Tragically, because of water, rust, cost, and procrastination, the Parthenon was once again in imminent danger of collapse.

The Parthenon and the Surfside Condo have much to say to nonprofit and faith-based leaders. They provide an allegory concerning the condition of society’s inner structure. They afford a valuable opportunity to discuss two important questions. What is the primary rebar of society? And more importantly, what is its condition?

According to a 2018 Harvard Study published in the Journal of Epidemiology, religious faith should be considered as one of society’s most vital rebars. The report concludes that participating in spiritual practices during and after adolescence, is “a protective factor for a range of health and well-being outcomes into adulthood. Researchers discovered that people who practice daily prayer and attend weekly religious worship services report greater life satisfaction and positivity than those who do not. Additionally, they exhibited less depressive symptoms, do not smoke or use illicit drugs, and have fewer sexually transmitted infections than individuals raised with less regular faith-based habits.

A more recent 2020 Harvard Study conducted during the Covid Epidemic similarly concluded that people who attend religious observances at least once a week were significantly less likely to die from “deaths of despair” including suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning. In addition, the study found that young adults with faith-based lifestyles were 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities, 33% less likely to use illicit drugs, and a 39% decrease in the likelihood of criminal activity. Sixteen percent (16%) of those who prayed daily reported higher happiness levels than those who did not.

These and other research findings are important for both our understanding of personal health, parenting, and the well-being of society at large. In the words of one Harvard researcher, “while decisions about religion are not shaped principally by health, for adolescents who hold religious beliefs, encouraging worship service attendance and private practices may be meaningful avenues of protection from the dangers of depression, substance abuse, crime, and risk-taking.” The report additionally states that “these practices may positively contribute to happiness, volunteering, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and to forgiveness.”

Faith-based nonprofit organizations have a  long history of responding to people in need and must continue to be important players in the community’s response to emergencies. While there is no generally accepted definition of faith-based organizations, they are characterized by having one or more of the following:  affiliation with a  religious body;  a  mission statement with explicit reference to religious values;  financial support from religious sources;  and/or a governance structure where the selection of board members or staff is based on religious beliefs or affiliation and/or decision-making processes based on religious values.

Nearly 75% of organizations helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rebuild communities are faith-based groups. Unfortunately, the role that these religious groups have in natural disaster relief efforts is seldom mentioned. According to Greg Forrester, the CEO of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), “about 80% of all recovery happens because of nonprofits, and the majority of them are faith-based.” It should consequently come as no surprise to learn that, during tragedies like the collapse of the Champlain Towers Condo, churches and faith-based nonprofits are not just donating money and supplies to disaster zones, but also setting up warehouses, sending trained relief volunteers, counseling victims, and are in the trenches trying to help people rebuild their lives.

The German philosopher Georg Hegel is correct: “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.” The continuing repair efforts of the ancient Parthenon and the tragic collapse of the much younger Champlain Towers Condo in Surfside, Florida should cause nonprofit and faith-based leaders to pause and learn a lesson from history. Religious faith has always been a vital rebar of humanity’s societal skeleton. Apart from providing much-needed physical and emotional resources, faith-based assets should simultaneously be extended to victims, families, and communities experiencing the unexpected consequences of life’s collapses.

Faith is rooted in trying to understand the meaning of life and, in some cases, how a relationship with a Higher Power may influence that meaning. If we are attentive, perhaps we too may hear the voice of a Higher Power conveying an early morning message – a warning – of what can happen to the structure of society if we neglect the watchful maintenance of the inner rebar of faith.

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