Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – This is no time to be curmudgeonly. Hundreds of people have died up in the mountains above Rio, and the death toll will reach 1,000 once the bodies of the disappeared are found, long downriver or under rubble. Tens of thousands of people have lost their friends and their relatives, their homes and their possessions, their pets and their hope.
Thousands of businesses have had to shut down because they cannot produce anything, for horrendous reasons—the people who worked for them are dead or injured, their production equipment is under mud, the little they produce they cannot send out of town because there are no roads or bridges, etc. Tourism is dead, who would go visit a place where you will worry about being killed if it rains hard?
For it does rain hard in the mountains above Rio, especially in the summer. The prevailing weather pattern in the summer is hot and humid by day; in the late afternoon the clouds move in over the mountains, the rain comes, weak and drizzly or thunderclap strong, usually only a few minutes or hours, but sometimes, far less frequently than once in a blue moon, it pours and pours and pours: death and destruction result.
So, who’s at fault? Was it an Act of God? Was it the Weather Bureau, which didn’t issue a timely warning? Was it the Prefectures of the various towns and cities, which allowed homes to be built on the hillsides? Was it the state environmental agency, which never does anything at all?
The Curmudgeon tends towards blaming an “Act of God” or “force majeure.” The legal definition of this is a natural event “which cannot be predicted or prevented.”
Some will argue it was predictable because it rains in the mountains, and erosion due to overbuilding will eventually destroy the vegetation that keeps the hillsides green. The counter-argument to that is the size and suddenness of the deluge.
The immense amount of water that fell in a few hours may happen once every hundred years or so, if that often, and is not predictable. Minor earthquakes are predictable, huge ones are not. Ordinary thunderstorms, no matter how terrifying, do not cause the same amount of destruction, just as minor earthquakes don’t cause tsunamis.
Some will argue it was preventable, because the city and state authorities should never have allowed anyone at all to build on the hillsides—they should have been maintained in their pristine state. The counter-argument is this: most people who build homes in the risk areas do so for one reason only—they can’t afford to build anywhere else.
They are the poor who yearn for a home of their own, just as poor the world over yearn. Remember the “sub-prime mortgage” that caused the 2008 crash of the financial world? Some blamed that on the poor who bought houses, when they couldn’t afford them.
The basic problem is the urbanization of Brazil, the ever-increasing migration of people from the countryside to the cities, and the lack of any “safe” land in those cities where immigrants can build. In Rio de Janeiro, people now must go to the favelas, because the “green” areas have (mostly) been protected.
Theoretically the same thing could happen in Petrópolis, Teresópolis and Nova Friburgo—but do we really want to create more favelas? If we prohibit all building on the hillsides, that is what will happen.