When a Building Falls Who Gets to Be Saved?
The building collapse in Davenport highlights inequality in America
At 5 pm on Sunday night, a portion of a six-story apartment building in downtown Davenport collapsed.
There had been warnings that the building was falling apart. Residents complained of cracks in the walls and plumbing issues. In January, according to city officials there were reports that bricks were popping off the sides of the building. The owner hired an engineering company called Select Structural, based in nearby Bettendorf, to inspect the building. They deemed it sound and recommended repairs, which were done. But in May there were more complaints about bricks falling off; just days before the collapse, the building was inspected again. Again, it was deemed safe, with repairs recommended. The note on the Davenport City permit and inspection website reads,
Wall bracing will be installed per engineer’s design. • Engineer will stop over periodically to ensure work is being done per his design. • City inspector will stop over periodically to see progress.
Inspection Status: Pass
Or that’s what it read on Monday, the day after the collapse. By Tuesday, May 30, the site had been updated to read, “Inspection Status: Failed.”
In the hours after the collapse, the city called in search and rescue; dogs were brought in from Cedar Rapids; the area was combed for survivors. On Monday morning, Davenport Mayor Mike Matson declared that everyone was recovered; there was no one missing and no one had died.
But just hours later, Lisa Brooks was seen waving for help from a fourth-story window. She’d been hiding in a bathtub with a blanket over her. At a news conference the following day, Matson said he had no idea how she had been missed.
“I have a lot of questions about that, too,” Matson said. Then, he handed the news conference over to the city’s police chief and fire marshal, who explained the heroic efforts of the first responders. No one explained how people had been missed and were still missing. Because they were still missing.
On Monday, the city sent out a news release saying the building was set to be torn down the next morning. But that night and into the next morning, residents of Davenport gathered to protest. At least two men were still missing: Ryan Hitchcock and Branden Colvin. People could see pet cats staring out the windows. “Find them first,” the protesters chanted.
Why was the city planning on tearing down a building two days after it had partially collapsed? The people gathered in the streets wanted to know. What about the pets still inside? What about the people?
The demolition was postponed. And city officials seemed to imply it had been a big misunderstanding. They would demolish the building, but not that day. They were going to keep looking for people and pets.
At the news conference on Tuesday, Matson testily walked back claims the building was set to be destroyed imminently, sparring with Joe McCoy, a journalist at WQAD, the ABC-affiliate in the Quad Cities. McCoy pointed out that when the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed in 2021, authorities waited 10 days before demolishing it.
Matson insisted that the plans to bring down the Davenport building were fluid. “I have the email where you say,” McCoy said.
“I didn’t send it,” Matson responded.
The rush from rescue to ruin has frustrated residents, who say the city had ignored the warning signs that the building was unsafe and is now ignoring residents as they demand ongoing rescue efforts.
Ryan Hitchcock’s cousin Amy Anderson spoke at that same press conference on May 30, chiding protesters for their presence in the streets and defending the city’s actions, while family members of Branden Colvin say they were forced to stay outside. Colvin’s son live-streamed on his phone from outside the news conference. During the press conference, city officials admitted there might be at least three more people missing — in addition to Hitchcock and — Colvin, but said they didn’t know for sure.
The admission was frustratingly vague from officials who just the day before had announced everyone was safe and no one had died.
Without the appearance of Brooks in the window of the upper floor, and without friends, family, and protesters demanding that rescuers keep seeking Colvin and Hitchcock, it’s possible the city would have just demolished the building Tuesday morning as planned. Instead, they held off.
In 2003, a study found that from 1986 to 2000, there were 225 building collapses worldwide, and most of those were low-rise residential buildings. But 2000 was a long time ago, and more accurate statistics are harder to tabulate. After the Surfside building collapse in 2021, engineers admitted that buildings were being tested by climate change in ways that had not been anticipated.
“We’re also in unknown territory to a certain extent in terms of seeing demands on buildings that we didn’t expect, whether it is a climate-change-induced demand with flooding once a year where we would have expected no floods or more frequent higher-speed windstorms occurring,” Benjamin W. Schafer, a professor of civil and systems engineering and director of the Ralph S. O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute at Johns Hopkins University told Scientific American in 2021.
Davenport was hit by a derecho — an inland hurricane — in 2020. Afterward, residents of the apartment building reported roof damage and damage to other parts of the structure. It was also 100 years old, built of brick and steel, not made to stand up to modern disasters.
Once buildings are past the construction phase, many cities don’t require inspections for structural integrity. So, as weather conditions change the make-up of the land, buildings shift, and age, and eventually fall apart.
Davenport is not a one-off. During that same derecho, low-rise apartment buildings in Cedar Rapids were twisted open like tuna cans. Residents, most of them immigrants, were left outside for days before the Red Cross came. Meanwhile, the mayor declared that Cedar Rapids didn’t need help.
At the time I was working for a local newspaper. One of the residents told me that he had helped build the building and he wasn’t surprised it couldn’t stand the winds. He didn’t think it was safe, but he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
As our climate disaster intensifies, America’s infrastructure will continue to crumble. The shoddiest buildings — with the poorest residents — will be at the greatest risk. And it is always the most vulnerable people that our society is most willing to sacrifice.
As always, try to follow journalists in the community where the disaster is happening. Sarah Watson and Gretchen Teske from the Quad City Times are doing incredible work. Here is one story by Sarah Watson about Quanisha White-Berry who was pulled from the wreckage.
There are a lot of GoFundMe’s set up for victims of the collapse. But please try to vet GoFundMe requests if you can. A lot of scams crop up in disasters. Isabella Rosario, a Davenport native and local, has put together a thread with some GoFundMe pages.