The World’s Eyes on Rio’s Woes

Rio building collapse, January 2012

The last thing Rio wants - with two years to go before it hosts the World Cup - is images like this showing up on news channels and in newspapers.

Last week’s multiple-building collapse in downtown Rio was big news around the world. Not unsurprisingly, given Rio will be hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and tourists would probably rather their hotel stay in one piece.

Aside from covering it for The Rio Times, I was on Canadian CTV News and BBC radio – trying to put as fair a spin on it as possible, while feeling it was a real pity I wasn’t conveying something more upbeat about Rio.

Yes, it was terrible; no, it wasn’t totally unexpected; yes, Rio will have to put its socks up before these sporting mega-events; no, you can’t expect perfection from a country that’s still developing; yes, the quality of its infrastructure still needs to catch up with the zeros on its bank balance; no, this doesn’t justify the loss of life.

Brazil might be the world’s 6th biggest economy now, but it is still growing and adapting to its new-found wealth – which is still split extremely unfairly among the country’s 205 million-strong population. Yes, the country’s middle class is growing – and at quite a lick – but no one’s kidding themselves that Lula really solved all of Brazil’s woes in eight years in office.

Rio was very lucky, if you can say that, to escape with only seventeen deaths from this building collapse. This area, Cinelândia – Centro, is Rio’s commercial heartland (along with its more recent Barra business district), with Petrobras’ HQ and the Metropolitan Cathedral nearby, and only the fact that it was 8:30pm when the collapse happened meant a higher death toll was avoided. It’s also on Rio’s secondary tourist trail – for those who venture inland from Rio’s stunning beaches in Copacabana and panoramic views from the Christ the Redeemer statue in Corcovado.

Theatro Municipal, Rio Jan 2011, photo by Ben Tavener

The buildings which collapsed were directly behind the 100-year-old Theatro Municipal, photo by Ben Tavener (Jan 2011).

Questions are inevitably being asked as to how three buildings could collapse – one 20 storeys tall, one 10 storeys, and a joining five-storey section – on the same block as the century-old Theatro Municipal (pictured), one of Rio’s most recognisable human-built landmarks.

It’s likely that no one factor was involved here.

Having spoken to a number of industry specialists in the past few days, it seems that, whether or not illegal construction work going on in the 20-storey building triggered the collapse, a good deal of other factors would have helped bring it down.

Yes, constructing buildings quickly and on the cheap – to keep up with Rio’s booming real estate markets and demand for new buildings – means that the workers and material used will not be of best quality. But this is just one factor.

Another is Rio’s tropical climate – temperatures regularly in the high 30Cs, with moist sea air, shifting soils.

Together, buildings age fast – and if new buildings are put up around them, then the land is again shaken and disrupted; add in the metro rumbling underneath and the substandard electric, water and gas infrastructure (which occasionally leads to manhole covers exploding in the streets, and led to a lethal explosion in a restaurant last November) – then you start to see a different pictures than just “they took out the wrong wall and it collapsed”.

However, there can be no denying that Rio needs to take its buildings more seriously. For the sake of its own people as much as its millions of tourists.

The experts tell me building plans are often poor or missing altogether, and engineers are often needed to second-guess how the building was originally put together. And that’s the people who bother finding out. Most just make alterations as they please, without the consent of the relevant authorities – as was the case with the works being carried out on the 20-storey Freedom Building, whose collapse last week killed so many.

Officials rushing to demand tighter regulation and drawing attention to Rio’s more positive sides may have averted Rio’s image being tarnished too severely on this occasion.

But another major PR disaster, with the World Cup and the Olympics looming large on the horizon, might be impossible to avoid.

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