Is Rio for the birds?

Neverending mudslides and deaths are no draw for tourism and terrible for locals

[UPDATE JAN. 25 2011] The mudslide death toll in the mountains north of Rio tops 800, more than died in the Chile earthquake last February according to O Globo, and reconstruction and cleanup costs are estimated at US$ 1.2 billion equivalent for the region. Around 500 people are missing. Rio mayor Eduardo Paes says the state capital has 18,000 families living in high-risk areas and must move elsewhere, with government aid. Another 40,000 families live in moderately risky locations.

As if the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics weren’t enough, the city of Rio de Janeiro is about to garner even more attention and fame, with the April 8 world premiere of Rio, an animated feature film by the Brazilian director of the Oscar-nominated Ice Age, Carlos Saldanha.

Rio is about a blue macaw from Minnesota who comes to the city to meet the only other surviving member of his species— a “fiercely independent” female, as she’s described in the IMDb blurb. The trailer is adorable, and a RioRealblog reader who’s  seen big chunks of the film in a private screening loved them. Globo reports that the film could raise international consciousness about the city to a degree perhaps seen only once before, when Walt Disney invented the José Carioca character in 1942.

In Rio, Blu and Jewel do a lot of flying around over lovely scenery. But if they were to take wing in the Rio area today, the movie they’re in would be no advertisement. This week, Brazil’s worst natural tragedy ever occurred in Rio state, in the inland mountain range that separates the state from Minas Gerais to the north. So far more than 500 bodies have been counted as a result of  flooding and mudslides in the areas of Petrópolis, Teresópolis and Nova Friburgo. These are all tourist areas where thousands of cariocas have second homes, and will need years and a great deal of money to recover from the damage. Photos and video images show total devastation, and reportedly some residents still await rescue. Much of the area has no electricity or phone service. And it’s raining again. Many of the destroyed buildings were built on risky mountainsides, home to a growing number of people who work in the region’s service sector.

Surveying the damage yesterday together with Governor Sérgio Cabral, President Dilma said that the construction of homes in such locations is the rule, not the exception in Brazil. Tropical countries have always suffered natural catastrophes, but with climate change these are intensifying. Despite centuries of experience with torrential rain and its effects, prevention and response still fall far short of citizens’ needs. In the case of this week’s tragedy, officials said they have weather forecasting equipment, but lack personnel, training and systems to alert and evacuate residents. Government efforts to remove homes in at-risk areas are stuck in the courts. According to some observers, Lula’s government failed to disburse prevention funds for the area, but it may also be the case that local officials failed to comply with disbursement requirements.

Last November, the city and state applied for federal funding for urban upgrades to prepare for the Olympics, including civil defense engineering and flood prevention.

As is always the case when such flooding and damage occur, Rio de Janeiro state and city residents are now calling on government officials to do a better job of prevention and preparation. “The day a mayor, looking at clouds on the horizon, glimpses the most remote possibility of going to jail for the deaths he could have avoided and that he encouraged, Brazilian cities would gradually stop being, as they almost all are, ugly, vulnerable and decrepit,” writes journalist Marcos Sá Correa in O Globo‘s opinion section of today’s paper.

It could be that such calls have a better chance of being heeded than previously. President Dilma is expected to announced a “management shock” for government at today’s ministerial meeting, which would follow the examples of Australia and New Zealand and push federal officials to be more accountable and more performance-oriented. A similiar approach was announced earlier this month for Rio state’s education system. Could this be a trend?

Last April, Rio de Janeiro proper was paralyzed by heavy rainfall and resulting destruction with loss of life and homes; in October 2007 chaos resulted when the Rebouças Tunnel, a key link between the city’s north and south zones, was blocked by mudslides. The upcoming sporting events will take place in the city’s winter season, traditionally dry (and subject to forest fires), so that the chances of muddied games are slim. But 12 million people live in greater Rio, year-round, subject to ever more intense weather and not-so-lovely scenery. One hopes that the city and state can and will become safer for tourists and residents alike, be they birds or human.


About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Is Rio for the birds?

  1. Addison says:

    Let’s dispense with one point of contention right away. Some people claim that natural disasters are “acts of God”, and governments should not be blamed for them.

    Japan is subject to earthquakes. The government of Japan is not responsible for earthquakes. But the government understands the threat of earthquakes, and has taken measures – expensive measures, measures that take years to implement and require rigorous oversight to enforce – to mitigate the suffering and loss that earthquakes bring.

    Why have Japan’s leaders done this? Because they are especially benevolent? Perhaps. But I suspect that they knew the Japanese would vote them out of office if they did not do it. The Japanese people, lead by the responsible Japan intelligentsia, demanded that elected leaders perform. The alternative was political hara-kiri.

    Can the Brazilian people, lead by the responsible Brazilian intelligentsia, demand that their leaders take measures? Yes. Have they done so? No.

    Would that that during the last presidential campaign some candidate had filmed a three minute clip featuring an expert on flood and landslide control. In the imaginary spot, the expert points out the loss of life and the suffering caused by previous calamities. Then, using a map of Brazil, he shows the regions most at risk. Finally he describes the measures that must be taken and estimates their cost. We learn how long the process would take and how many lives would be saved. We see that is a question of spending billions of reaís to save billion of reaís and thousands of lives. We understand the projects would create jobs but raise the danger of inflation. The effort, then, demands sober planning and shared sacrifice.

    Facts are boring. There is nothing romantic or glamorous or exciting about planning for a flood any more than planning for sewage removal. But people die if we don’t plan for floods and sewage removal. Well, the government needs to MAKE planning romantic by erecting a monument somewhere in the Serra and building a drama around it.

    The monument would list the name of the flood victim together with a pledge to do all humanly possible to prevent future disasters. (Yes, you will always have some flood deaths — if we start now perhaps we could have it down to a dozen per year in ten years.) The monument would have space reserved to list what the government actually did to honor the pledge: the studies really carried out, the works completed, the honored names of all who helped in the effort, and the cost to taxpayers.

    Probably everyone reading this already knows about our current situation with respect to planning. Intelligent people all over Brazil are aware of it. Why can’t we get together and do something? Please read

    Dilma appears to be moved by the tragedy and has taken some laudable early steps to prepare for disasters. We should support her and others like her, recognizing that the government can’t perform miracles. But we must demand that they carry through on the effort. A year from now we must seek to learn what has actually been done. We should rigorously vote out anyone who doesn’t perform and vote in anyone who does.

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