By Scott Salmon
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – News of this week’s torrential rains and flooding in Rio de Janeiro reached many international audiences under surreal-seeming headlines about gators roaming an urban neighborhood so dangerous local authorities refused to enter.
The walls of an apparently unregulated caiman farm in Favela do Rola were breached by floodwaters, freeing the creatures to navigate the area’s flooded streets – to the amusement of the foreign press and the terror of residents. The neighborhood, like many others in this city’s western zone, is controlled by an armed militia, and requests for city officials to remove the roving caimans were declined due to concerns for their safety.
But across the city, the reality of the storm and its aftermath was far from amusing – at least ten deaths, numerous landslides, fallen trees, downed powerlines, countless homes and properties destroyed or damaged, lives up-ended, schools and businesses closed.
The storm generated a sense of déjà vu among cariocas. It was the third storm this year alone, with February having suffered a particularly destructive one. Indeed, in many parts of the city, damage from February’s deluge was still being repaired when this storm struck.
The caimans notwithstanding, these storms hit poorer neighborhoods, typically the least prepared and where drainage infrastructure is fragile or non-existent, the hardest.
A compilation of storm-related social media posts on the community reporting website RioOnWatch revealed that in Babilônia (overlooking Leme), for example, the rain siren wasn’t activated because rainfall didn’t reach required levels (45mm/hour). Nonetheless, a landslide subsequently killed sisters Doralice and Gerlaine Nascimento, burying them alive in their home. Firefighters later also found the body of Gilson Cezar Cerqueira dos Santos, who apparently died trying to help the Nascimento sisters.
While Mayor Crivella is technically correct to claim such rainfalls are atypical, they are far from unprecedented. More storms are predicted for April and, given the accelerating meteorological instability associated with climate change, only likely to occur more frequently in the future. We know it rains in Rio, so why is the city so unprepared?
The stark reality is that flood preparedness simply hasn’t been a priority for the current – or the previous – city administrations. Municipal spending on urban drainage has steadily declined in recent years, from R$55.3 million in 2016 (under the Paes administration) to R$33.5 million in 2017 and R$24.4 million in 2018 (during the Crivella administration). On the eve of Monday’s downpour, the Secretariat of Conservation and Environment (SECONSERVA) had authorized no new expenditure for this year.
On Thursday, the Mayor declared a state of public calamity in Rio, a legislative device enabling the city to respond more efficiently to the disaster (granting contracts without soliciting bids, for example) and to seek financial assistance from the federal government. But, not only is this too late for families like the Nascimento’s, but it also seems too little to adequately address a long history of governmental neglect.
A useful analogy can be found in US snow belt cities that fail to adequately prepare for the possibility of a severe winter snowstorm. As such, Mayor Crivella might find the fates of New York’s John Lindsay, Chicago’s Michael Bilandic and Denver’s Bill McNichols instructive. All three were mayors of cities spectacularly unprepared for major snowstorms, each suffered the consequence at the next municipal election.