That pancake collapse of a building in Florida is an allegory for issues across the nation, in every town and county where people are constructing buildings, driving roads, and crossing old bridges. It’s a study of collapse at every level of American life: politics, business, aspirations of living the American dream and even faith in the possibility of justice.
Case in point: the haggling in Congress over a long-overdue infusion of public money in public infrastructure. Arguing over who pays, how much, when, and what are the alternatives to waiting, just a little longer, to fix something that people would like to just take for granted as being invulnerable.
In spite of general acknowledgement that investment in public facilities is vital, action is put on hold because of factional bickering along ideological fault lines.
More than trust, people take quality of life issues for granted in America and that includes Maryland. A repeated remark in Florida was, “Buildings just don’t fall down in America.”
We were warned.
The late writer John D. MacDonald wrote fictional but true tales of how easily the dreams become nightmares. His favorite stage was Florida, and his cast of players included newcomers moving to what they perceive as paradise, moving into buildings erected on sand-covered limestone full of holes, reclaimed land on coastal swamp and low-country marshes.
MacDonald lamented the destruction of Florida’s natural beauty as it was replaced by rows of condos and man-made canals lined by houses with boats and water-skis and miles of roads to carry customers to restaurants and amusement parks.
His novel, “Condominium,” became a movie, and told the story of the consequences of a perfect storm – no pun intended – when a hurricane sweeps into the Gulf of Mexico and creates a tidal surge that overtakes a building erected where none should have been permitted by politicians caught up in the visions of prosperity and growth of business and corrupted by the greed of the developers who had courted them.
Just fiction, of course. MacDonald’s villains were always the rich and powerful. But in real life, we’re all players in the story.
The average homeowner likely spent more time watching the news of the Florida disaster these past days than they did fully examining and researching their own home’s lease or construction documents.
Even the NIMBY people – Not In My Back Yard – know or care little about the regulations that enable the development of properties near theirs until they have their revelation that business and government regulation and taxes and cost and quality of life issues are not just images in marketing and election brochures.
Buildings don’t fall down in America because we have less corruption and more government oversight. But that’s inconsistent because of the swinging pendulum of election results. Politics and commerce teeter on the see-saw of public well-being balancing the interests of the marketing industry and business profits.
People assume the government will protect their interests, but they don’t want to pay the taxes required to enforce the rules. Many are all for safety regulations like sprinkler systems in new construction until they face higher construction costs.
Environmental watchdogs are dismissed as crackpots, even as the shorelines in Maryland disappear into the bays and ocean, and towns like Annapolis and Baltimore flood regularly with runoffs from upstream storms.
Potable water is so rare in counties like Carroll that new residential construction is held up so the developers and town planners can find some kind of work-around. It’s a challenge everywhere.
The pressure is on the politicians to back off the regulations, and on the engineers and the builders to cut construction costs. And so it goes. Enough pressure, you can have not only poor choices, but poor leaders making policies based on populist, short-range thinking.
So, things get put off. They fall down. The victims are rarely among the decision-makers and accountants. But the public is a player. Corruption does not necessarily need to have greed as a base. It can be born of a lack of judgment, or an abdication of public and private responsibility.
Dean Minnich is a retired journalist and served two terms as a Carroll County commissioner. He writes from Westminster.