When an illegal gas cannister exploded one morning last October at the downtown Filé Carioca restaurant, killing four and bringing down much of the building it was housed in, cariocas discovered just how spotty safety inspections are. “The firemen aren’t equipped to inspect every building,” fire chief Sérgio Simões told O Dia newspaper. “We inspect in response to reports of irregularities”.
After that tragedy, the mayor and the fire department promised to do a better job.
Last night a twenty-story building, also downtown, collapsed onto two other buildings, destroying them as well. Seventeen bodies have been recovered and at least five people are missing. So far, it looks like unreported renovations somehow destabilized the tallest building.
Today, social media chatter brought to light a shocking truth: in Rio de Janeiro (and perhaps all of Brazil?), renovations are the full responsibility of the project engineer and the building owner. No government inspections are carried out– except for when the building first goes up.
“You’d need thousand of inspectors, paid with citizens’ taxes. Do you want to pay more taxes for this? Or an inspection fee?” asked one Facebook thread commenter.
An architect mentioned in the same thread that the city is responsible for keeping every new building’s original plans, for reference use during renovation– but that he’s found that these are often unavailable.
In many countries, inspection fees are indeed charged when renovation takes place, for everything from commercial construction to home improvement. This involves bureaucracy, but insurance companies don’t insure uninspected work. The process is meant to safeguard the public at large and, in the case of an accident, facilitate investigation, prosecution and legal decisions regarding blame and compensation.
Who will pay the damages and for the suffering, in this week’s tragic case? So far, the State Social Aid Secretariat has said it will pay burial costs for the dead, and the state council of engineers has mentioned that the engineer in charge of the unreported work could lose his license. Insurance hasn’t been mentioned– and neither the owner’s name nor that of the engineer in charge of the work has been made public.
Until bus corridors were instituted a few months ago, Rio de Janeiro was a city where you could bring a municipal bus to a stop anywhere at all, simply by raising a finger. More of a village, than a city.
But the village is in fact a city of 12 million boasting plans for grandeur, with hammers, drills and bulldozers at work all over. As the building progresses, as investment flows in and tourists arrive, demand for city services and oversight is mushrooming. But not being met. Google the words inspeção de obras Rio de Janeiro (construction inspection Rio de Janeiro) and this is what you get at the top of the page.
Try doing the same in English or French.
In the last year Rio has seen exploding manhole covers, trolley, ferry and bus accidents, metro stoppages and electrical blackouts, among other catastrophes.
Meanwhile, the city council plays almost no role in drafting public policy and Mayor Eduardo Paes has focused on a constant “shock of order” starting in 2009. Expanding and training the municipal guard, he has prioritized illegal parking and street vendors.
But it might just be time to create a task force to rethink the city’s antiquated building code and zoning regulations– and the way they are enforced. Otherwise, the grandeur could well remain in the realm of illusion.
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