Cracks in the edifice

Does it really have to be that way? Is it so very difficult, to devise a national construction and development policy that really does place the rights of ordinary citizens at the core of all its decision-making processes?

The site of the Hamrun collapse that killed Miriam Pace. Photo: James Bianchi
The site of the Hamrun collapse that killed Miriam Pace. Photo: James Bianchi

Remember what Forest Gump’s mother always used to say? ‘Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get’…

Well, I often feel the same way about the Internet. You might start out looking for something specific… but what you end up finding is very often something else altogether.

This morning, for instance, I tried running a Google search for details of a story reported on TVM news yesterday. You may have seen it too: it consisted of a brief interview with a lady from Sliema – interspersed with close-ups of her damaged home – who expressed fears of sharing the same tragic fate as Miriam Pace last Monday… or, in her own words, “that our home collapses and comes crashing down on us, like what happened to that poor woman.”

The cause of her concern was also very visible in the accompanying footage: great big cracks and fissures had opened up across parts of the walls and ceiling, as a result of ongoing excavation works next door.

In any case, I wanted to find a more detailed online version of the story; but by the time I woke up the following morning, all I could remember with any certainty was that the house was in Sliema: somewhere around Savoy, but nothing more specific than that.

Ah, but this is where the Internet comes in. Just a few choice keywords – ‘Sliema’, ‘house’, ‘damage’, ‘excavation’, etc – was all it took for Google’s algorithms to work their magic, and instantly home in on precisely what I was looking for…

… or so I thought, anyway. For the first link I found was about a “resident living next door to construction site”; and the main headline was: “Architect told us to be careful, as the building will come down sooner or later…”

So I found myself reading about: “the Galea family of Sliema, whose home adjoins a construction site in Parisio Street where excavation, which has been ongoing for nearly six months, has already been carried out to a number of storeys below road level….”

Hmm. So far, all the details match up… but something doesn’t feel right. ‘Parisio Street’, for instance. I’m not at all sure that’s the name I struggled so hard to remember this morning…

But no matter, I carried on reading: “George Galea showed us the fissures which he said had appeared as a result of the excavation. ‘All over the house, especially down here and where I have the kitchen and bathroom, and cracks have appeared even there. I have told the contractor several times about this problem, but he doesn’t want to know, and has continued excavating. The contractor is supposed to have excavated up to a distance of two feet from our home. He has excavated right up to it, that is against the law, and he has ignored it. What can I do?’…”

OK, by this point I figured out something was amiss (e.g., the name ‘George’ felt vaguely unconvincing, for a middle-aged woman from Sliema)… so I did what I should have done straight away, and checked the date.

‘June 12, 2019’. Only then did I realise I was reading an article written nine months earlier: about an entirely different household, in a different part of the same town… and yet, but for some trifling details here and there, the actual circumstances being described were almost perfectly identical.

So much so, that when I eventually did find the correct article… it almost read like a copy-and-paste job. This, for instance, is from the more recent article, published last Thursday:

“Several residents of Viani Street, Sliema…” – Yep, that’s the one! – “have lived with the fear of their home collapsing because of cracks which developed as a result of excavation works on an adjacent building site. […] They explained how in February last year cracks started developing in the walls and the beams while excavation works were being carried on a house nearby. […] ‘When they started, I had breakages here and breakages there, which continued to grow from one day to the next. I kept finding new cracks. Since the contractor started working, these have increased…”

And just to seal this extraordinary resemblance between these two otherwise unrelated events: the second article even ends with the same sort of quote – in almost exactly the same words – that was used as its predecessor’s headline: ‘The architect told us to be careful because at one time or another [the house] might fall…’”

I don’t know about you, but I find it deeply disturbing that an event as serious as the one described on the news yesterday – with a woman practically reduced to tears of desperation, as her own home crumbles around her thanks to the recklessness of nearby developers – would actually turn out to be so commonplace, that it gets reported twice in the space of just nine months.

And that’s just from a quick search limited only to Sliema: and even then, only to cases which were reported in the news. Given the extent of construction and/or excavation works currently going on in practically all parts of the island – with new development permits being churned out at a seemingly exponential rate – well, the question almost asks itself.

How many other people, right now, are living through the same (or comparable) levels of fear and anxiety, as expressed so forcefully by that woman on TV yesterday? The one we all heard supplicating: “I do not want to get buried under the dust, and for my children to find me there. I have five grandchildren…”?

In all honesty, that’s not the sort of thing you want to hear anyone say even once (let alone twice in the same year… and a couple of days after the same fears were so hideously realised in Santa Venera). But I felt compelled to quote the exact words, because – to me, at any rate – they illustrate the precise crux of the problem that has been staring us in the face for the last few years.

To put it simply: people have been made to feel so utterly helpless, that their only remaining recourse – even when their very lives are threatened – is just to cry out desperately for help.

Which, conversely, also means that all the other remedies that are supposed to be at our disposal – all the regulations that are in place, and the agencies and institutions that are meant to be ‘safeguarding public safety’, and all that – do not actually work when they are called upon, either.

The Viani Street case attests to this directly: the damage began to occur last February, yet in practice it has proved impossible to halt the excavations works ever since: no, not even when the existing cracks widen from one to three inches, and new ones start appearing every other day…

Indeed, the whole point of TVM’s focus on this particular case was to remind us all that what happened last Monday was certainly no ‘freak occurrence’… on the contrary, it seems to be perfectly predictable. There are, after all, other residences that are in imminent danger of collapse, for the same reason… yet in spite of everything that has happened in recent years, the surrounding works simply continue regardless: even in cases where damage has already been caused, and where architects have warned of the danger of collapse.

And this, by the way, in complete defiance of all recent attempts to somehow ‘bring the construction industry into line’.

The same, incidentally, also applies to the Parisio Street example – where the owner likewise complained about the illegalities, to no avail. So the two cases resemble each other in more than just surface details: they both equally illustrate how the new building regulations, launched with much fanfare last year, have already proved spectacularly toothless in practice.

Much worse, they can also be seen to be directly contributing to the anguish of the afflicted residents: for also in both cases, it fell to the occupants themselves to hire the services of an architect to contest the developer’s method statement… at their own cost.

This, too, is part of the reason why that unfortunate women’s pleas have struck such a deeply resonant chord. To me, they reflect more than just the primal human fear of dying under the rubble of one’s own home. Somehow, they also echo that sense of helplessness and futility that we all find ourselves facing sooner or later… the more-than-justified perception that money literally buys power in this country; and power is used to mercilessly plough through everything in its path, no matter how many human lives are wrecked in the process.

And all along, I can’t help but ask myself: does it really have to be that way? Is it so very difficult, to devise a national construction and development policy that really does place the rights of ordinary citizens at the core of all its decision-making processes?

Oh, wait, I almost forgot. There’s the Internet for that sort of thing. Let’s see what Google has to say…

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