If it is going to happen, it will probably first happen in New York City, and it will be big. The gas explosion that leveled two buildings in Harlem today is something that we must all learn from. Aging buildings and aging infrastructure is something that will one day affect every locality across America. We do not know what led up to last week’s explosion, but occupants reported smelling the odorant placed in natural gas prior to the explosion.
As buildings age, the wood continues to dry, pipes rust and deteriorate, electrical systems weaken, even the foundation weakens. Do not get me wrong; gas explosions can occur in new buildings as quickly as old buildings. In some cases, problems go unnoticed until catastrophic failure occurs. Last week was an apparent catastrophic failure of the gas system in this building. Whether or not it was an acute or chronic problem, will hopefully come out in the investigation. Acute defined as a first-time detection of the problem and chronic being an ongoing problem.
In most localities, more inspections take place during the construction phase of buildings as opposed to buildings that are twenty, thirty or forty-plus years old. I do not have the answers of how to fix this. Building owners and occupants must share in the responsibility of the inspection process. Take my house for instance; it was built in the late 1960s. The aging systems in my home will be inspected by me alone, unless I ask someone to come in and inspect a certain system.
What is skewed in our thinking concerning these things? First of all, we need to take things a bit more seriously. Gas leaks have leveled buildings recently. If we smell the odorant, then we need to evacuate, cut the gas off at the tank, if possible, and then dial 9-1-1 or notify maintenance in a rented facility. If we smell something burning, we must investigate or notify someone. Things like what we saw in Harlem today will continue to happen. We must proactively address issues so that chronic issues do not lead to a catastrophe.
We must learn from every event that occurs, whether it happens in New York City or Charleston, West Virginia. I still think that if it is going to happen somewhere in America, it has probably already happened in New York City. If you are a building owner or a building occupant, take the time to inspect at least the exposed pipes, fittings and systems contained in that building. You will not find everything, but maybe you will find something. Be smart and be aware!