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Disaster Management Expert Discusses Rescue Efforts In Florida

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We're joined now by a guest who knows firsthand why this rescue and recovery effort and the investigations are so painstakingly slow. Robert Jensen is a disaster management expert who dealt with the aftermath of 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Grenfell Tower fire in the United Kingdom among many other mass casualty events. Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

ROBERT JENSEN: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First, your reaction to this collapse - is there a precedent for something like this in the United States?

JENSEN: Yeah. There's unfortunately not many new disasters, and it has happened before. There's - I'm really afraid this will be probably the largest nonintentional collapse of a building. The last big nonintentional collapse was the walkway at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City in April 1981 that killed 114 people. I don't know what the final number will be because, of course, they're still doing rescue, and they haven't really started recovery.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about that. This building went from a 12-story structure to a pile of rubble that's only about two stories tall. Talk us through, briefly, how you work on something like that, especially when the weather's bad. I mean, this is dangerous work.

JENSEN: It's very dangerous work, and Miami has a good team. And there's other teams in the state of Florida. Think of it as a couple different simultaneous operations that occur at the same time. So you have a building that's partially collapsed, so you have to stabilize the part that hasn't collapsed so it doesn't fall or drop debris on people working. You then have to go to the pile - that's the term we used in Oklahoma - and usually, you have the best success coming from underneath. Garages are safer. And you just go very slow.

It's not a question of do you have enough people. Too many people don't help because you can't have jackhammers and heavy equipment if you're trying to use microphones to listen for sound. Every action creates a reaction for moving pile or rubble pieces. So it's slow. It's painstaking. And at a certain point, they'll switch from a rescue to recovery.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let me ask you about that. At what point do they switch to recovery, and who decides?

JENSEN: Well, there'll be a task force leader that's in charge of the building site. And they'll make a determination that says, look; we've gotten to every void that we think we can. We're getting a point where it's not possible to sustain life because the pockets of air are too small or there's just no voids, and we don't think we're going to recover anyone else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that must be a hugely painful thing for families to accept. I mean, how do you talk to them about what comes next?

JENSEN: It is usually painful for them. But you need to be transparent, and you need to be direct. And you say, here's why we don't think we're going to find anyone else living. And you can bring in an architect, an engineer, floor plans, a map. You show where you've been. You show them what's left, and you say, at this point, we don't think we're going to recover anyone alive, and we're very sorry for that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the constraints, though, when an investigation is also underway, as it is here, to determine what exactly happened?

JENSEN: Well, at the same time you're doing this, you should have an engineer or an architect that's part of the investigation who's probably looked at the videos and say, we're - we think that we want to start on floor No. X as the primary location, and say, OK, this is where we need to stop. And we need to pull out this piece more carefully because we're going to have to do some analysis on - we have to look at the concrete. We have to look at the steel, the rebar. We want to look at how the rebar's tied together - all the pieces that investigators will look at. And then you'll pull some of that out, and it will go to - or it should go to a secure facility that's protected so you can go through it and then do a proper analysis on the material.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how long does this take, do you think, for something like this?

JENSEN: Months or years. And that's a part of...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really? Months or years?

JENSEN: Yeah. It's not just one person. It's several people. It's people now who are probably going over the building plans, people who are looking at all the permitting processes, people that are looking at all the previous inspections and then people to be looking at the physical evidence. And then they need to come together and say, what are our conclusions? And you have to be careful. Speculation is rife on these things. We don't want people going into a scene with a preconceived idea. We want people going into a scene to collect facts because we have to learn from this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what are the consequences, do you think, of this? I mean, people in high-rise buildings all over Miami are worried. My mother's condo building sent out a note saying that the building was safe, assuring everyone that they were safe. From all the disasters you've seen, what do you think the repercussions may be?

JENSEN: Well, they'll be in different boxes, if you will. So there will be - as the investigators go through, if they find something that's concerning, they certainly should alert everyone else immediately. And if they find stuff that's reassuring, that says this is a one-off, they should also release that so people are reassured. Miami-Dade has good building codes. Now, they underwent a big change in the early '90s when Hurricane Andrew hit. This building was built before that, but they still had very good codes.

I'm not sure you're going to see a huge change in building codes like you did after, again, the Hyatt. I think what you will see is - the ramifications are that they're going to have to decide what to do when they bring the rest of the building down. There's people who have property, and there's people who evacuated who haven't lost a loved one. They've certainly lost their neighbors and friends. They have to decide how they're going to get their life back to the new normal. Then it will be, what does the community want to do with this space? What about the families?

It's not right now as if you can do things. For a lot of people, the proof they need to start that transition to the - to what I call the new normal is to see a body and a funeral because then I know this person isn't coming back. And so the consequences for each one of those families will be how they deal with that until there's a recovery and identification. And that, again, can take weeks or months.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Robert Jensen. His company, Kenyon International Emergency Services, deals with the aftermath of mass casualty events. Thank you very much.

JENSEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.