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Investigations Aim To Keep Surfside Tragedy From Happening Elsewhere

NOEL KING, HOST:

There are at least four federal agencies in Surfside now, including FEMA, OSHA, the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST. The team from NIST is gathering information in order to see what kind of investigation might be warranted going forward. With so many federal agencies involved, could this building collapse lead to changes at the federal level? With me now is Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Good morning, Congresswoman.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

KING: We appreciate you being here. I want to start by asking about NIST because this is an agency that many of us are not familiar with. It's part of the Commerce Department. What exactly are NIST investigators looking into?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: So NIST is the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their responsibility under the National Construction Safety Act is to review building failure - and they got that authority within the wake of 9/11 - to review causes of failures like this one and end up, eventually, making recommendations on things like building code changes, engineering practices and other, you know, technical, scientific recommendations that can prevent failures like this in the future. That's - they're really like the National Transportation Safety Board but for, you know, building failure.

KING: I see. OK, that makes a lot of sense. And so what might they find that could lead to changes at the federal level? And please understand - I'm not asking you to speculate; I'm just wondering about - if it's discovered that something went really wrong, and we decide that we're going - the country is going to change laws, what kinds of things might they find that would lead to something that serious?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, it's important to note that it is very, very early, and NIST is stressing that as well. There are multiple probes that are underway. But the kinds of things that they will recommend can lead to legislation, can lead to resources being, you know, provided under coastal resiliency, can lead to engineering practices changed, and those are the kinds of things that they ultimately recommend. They're a fact-finding agency, not a fault-finding agency. And so I expect that they will be able to inform both rulemaking authority and local and state building practices and national building practices, as well as engineering standards.

And it can also inform legislation because, ultimately, we have hundreds of buildings in - just in south Florida. Two-hundred-and-seventy is the estimate in Miami-Dade alone that were built in the '70s or '80s and are just like this one. So we have to just make sure that we are taking care to look at old multistory buildings, which are already being investigated by Miami-Dade County now, in the immediate term so that we can make sure that people are safe in those buildings and that the things that need to be done to ensure that are taken care of. And NIST takes a longer-term look and does a more granular - really, a more granular investigation.

KING: What kind of changes could be made at the federal level? I thought a lot in terms of building codes was handled at the local or state level. What does the federal government have authority over exactly?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, NIST is able to recommend building code changes that would flow downward toward the state. There's a state - for example, we have a state building commission - most states, I assume, have a statewide building commission that develops those practices. And then there are local building codes - you know, code boards as well. So NIST is the body that makes recommendations when you have, you know, a dangerous situation that has resulted, like when there's an airplane crash or a train crash, but the National Transportation Safety Board covers.

So this is a federal, state and local effort to make sure, locally, in the immediate, that the buildings that are standing now in our community are reviewed, investigated and that we can make sure, like in North Miami Beach the other day, that if the practices in the immediate are problematic, that we get people out of those buildings and that inspections are done, that have been delayed, are brought into the current practice and make sure that we can handle things locally. Right now we have to make sure that the buildings in south Florida that are in a similar place are safe and that we make sure that people aren't in jeopardy. And then long term, we can take care of these building practices doing this investigations and other investigations.

KING: All right, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. Thank you for being with us. We appreciate your time.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.