Archive for April, 2010

Rain, Floods, and Favelas

April 20, 2010

Last week the rains descended on Rio.  On Monday and Tuesday, April 5-6 two months of normal rainfall (nearly 12 inches) cascaded down on the city in a period of 36 hours.  For a city located just above sea level and with hundreds of thousands of people living precariously on the stunningly beautiful hillsides, the rain created havoc and death.

Streets adjacent to Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

As cariocas attempted to go home from work on Monday night they found themselves surrounded by rising waters that flooded major thoroughfares bringing traffic to a standstill.  The two Rebouças tunnels that connect downtown Rio with Ipanema, Leblon and the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas became parking lots for the hundreds of cars unable to exit the tunnels into the low lying intersections.  Waters sweeping down from the hillsides around the lake lifted the level of the lake over the shores and into the neighboring streets.  Many had to sleep in their cars waiting 8-10 hours before they could leave.  The main bus terminal was isolated by rising waters.  The city simply could not absorb the massive rains.  For two days, Rio de Janeiro came to a virtual standstill as the mayor urged everyone to stay home.

Flooded streets in the Jardim Botanico neighborhood

The traffic and transit problems, however, were bothersome and temporary compared to the catastrophes on the hills around the city of Rio and Niterói across Guanabara Bay.  By Wednesday evening most traffic had returned to normal as the rains ended and the flood waters slowly drained into the Atlantic Ocean.   As emergency crews struggled to reach areas affected by landslides a growing tragedy became clearer and sobering.

Mudslide in Mangueira neighborhood

It has long been a great irony of Rio that the poorest people live precariously on the hillsides with the most spectacular views of the city.  For decades the poor have built their homes up the slopes of the dozens of hills that give Rio its trademark geography.  The process accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s as local governments and populist politicians gave up on trying to remove the slums (favelas) and did little to stop their growth.  Hundreds of thousands live on these hillsides around this city of millions.  Although the constructions are solid—of brick and mortar—they are built on steep hillsides with no planning, permits, or thought given to geological stability.

Mudslide in Morro dos Prazeres

In one strikingly disastrous location in Niterói, people built a street, stores, homes, and a church on top of what had been a landfill.  With the rains last week, the entire landfill beneath these homes on the Morro do Bumba came crashing down taking everything down the hillside and killing dozens.

Where there once was a thriving street in Morro do Bumba

Although last week’s rainfall was the worst in forty years, the flooding and mudslides make it clear that the city has a herculean task ahead, not only to spend hundreds of millions on infrastructure, but also to take a long, hard look at the hillside favelas.  Thousands—if  not tens of thousands—now live on unstable ground that will continue to come crashing down after future rains.  Removing large numbers of poor people from Rio’s hills will be a very difficult political move—and one that most politicians (especially in an election year) will seek to avoid.  Finding adequate housing for the poor has never been very high on Rio’s list of priorities.  The lack of political will today, however, will only mean more tragic deaths in the future.