Builders fought against making cranes safer in hurricane-prone Miami. Now two have fallen.

"Taking them is not something you can easily do."

A crane atop a building under construction in downtown, center, collapsed as Hurricane Irma passed by, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Miami. The crane collapsed in a bayfront area filled with hotels and high-rise condo and office buildings, near AmericanAirlines Arena, according to a tweet from the City of Miami.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
A crane atop a building under construction in downtown, center, collapsed as Hurricane Irma passed by, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Miami. The crane collapsed in a bayfront area filled with hotels and high-rise condo and office buildings, near AmericanAirlines Arena, according to a tweet from the City of Miami. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Two tower cranes collapsed Sunday in Miami after Hurricane Irma made landfall in southern Florida, leaving many people to wonder why cranes weren’t dismantled before the massive storm system hit.

Part of one construction crane, next to downtown Miami’s federal detention center, crashed in front of the Miami-Dade Courthouse, local ABC news channel WSVN reported. Another crane collapsed on top of an unfinished high-rise tower, NBC News reported.

It’s still unclear whether the cranes’ collapse caused injuries. City officials said that construction cranes are designed to withstand winds of 145 miles per hour, far less than the sustained windy conditions brought by a Category 5 hurricane but stronger than the 75-mile-an-hour conditions in Miami on Sunday morning.

Miami is out of the path of the eye of Hurricane Irma, which hit the Florida Keys early Sunday morning and is moving up the west coast of the state, but intense winds have knocked out power to more than 680,000 customers in the Miami-Dade area. Rising, fast-moving water has also submerged many parts of the city, with the city’s police department urging residents to stay indoors.

The city of Miami tweeted out a warning Sunday urging residents to avoid the area and for those whose building faces the crane, to seek shelter in the “opposite side of the building or stairwell.”

With Sunday’s crane’s collapse, people have been concerned over the dangers posed by the city’s other 20 to 25 construction cranes towering over downtown Miami.

The official answer for why the cranes stayed up came from city officials who previously said moving the equipment could take upwards of two weeks, with the counterbalances on tower cranes weighing anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds. The crane’s horizontal arms were not tied down on purpose so that they could swing “in free-wheeling circles in high winds,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.

“The crane’s arm has to remain loose… the arm’s counterbalance is very heavy and poses a potential danger if the crane collapses,” city officials tweeted on Tuesday.

“Streets have to be closed, another crane has to be brought in,” City manager Daniel Alfonso explained last week. “Taking them is not something you can easily do.”

It’s also hard to find workers to take down the cranes so quickly, as Alfonso pointed out when contacted by Miami Herald reporter David Smiley.

But the cranes might be more dangerous than they need to be: Builders, contractors, and crane owners have fought for laxer regulations, Miami Herald reporters pointed out.

In 2008, Miami-Dade County passed an ordinance setting mandatory hurricane wind load standards for the “construction, installation, operation, and use of tower cranes, personnel, and material hoists.” Soon after, building and contracting groups sued the city, arguing that the ordinance violated a federal law known as the OSH Act because it was a state regulation on occupational safety and health issues governed by federal standards. A district court sided with the building and contracting groups, arguing that there was already a federal standard that regulates wind loads, and as a result, preempted the ordinance.

Two years later, Miami-Dade unsuccessfully appealed the district court’s decision to prohibit the enforcement of that city ordinance. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the County’s argument, reasoning that construction sites were already closed to the public and that there hadn’t been a single crane accident during a hurricane that injured the public.

“This argument is not persuasive,” the decision read, in part. “Construction job sites are closed to the public and it is undisputed that the Ordinance’s wind load standards regulate how workers use and erect tower cranes during the course of their employment, thus directly affecting occupational safety. Furthermore, the County failed to identify a single incident in which a crane accident injured a member of the general public during a hurricane.”

But according to the 2010 case, “the majority of crane manufacturers have adopted the European Standard 93 mile-per-hour wind load.” Winds on Sunday well exceeded those speeds.

Laxer regulations may face intense scrutiny in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, especially as Miami continues to grow. Miami’s construction was set to triple in 2017 as compared to last year, according a Miami Downtown Development Authority report.

Meanwhile, crane booms along Interstate 4 near Orlando, a city projected to get peak winds of 80 to 90 miles per hour by Sunday night, were lowered to ground level.

Hurricane Irma set records earlier this week for sustained peak wind speeds. It has vacillated back and forth between a Category 4 and Category 5 storm, fueled in part by warmer waters in the Atlantic.


The piece has been updated to reflect that a second crane collapsed on Sunday.