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article imageParty's over: Rio reels from deadly disasters

By Louis GENOT (AFP)     Apr 17, 2019 in World

Long a party hot spot, Rio de Janeiro has not had much to celebrate after a series of deadly disasters rocked the Brazilian city, exposing the dire state of its infrastructure and official negligence.

Flooding, landslides and the collapse of illegal apartment buildings following torrential rain last week left more than 25 people dead and the "Marvelous City" in shock.

The havoc caused by the unusually heavy downpour was amplified by rampant construction in neighborhoods controlled by heavily-armed gangs and militias, where emergency workers are wary of entering because of the threat of violence.

"It's not the rain that kills, it's the incompetence of the leaders of the city and our country," wrote Brazilian columnist Miriam Leitao in the powerful daily O Globo after the predicted torrential rain on April 8-9 left 10 people dead.

Independent risk analyst Moacyr Duarte said Rio officials had made the postcard-pretty city, which has a "complex" topography of verdant hills and granite peaks, even more vulnerable to natural disasters through their lack of preparation.

"We had very intense rain which would have caused damage anywhere, but the impact here would have been much less if everything had worked properly," Duarte told AFP.

- Mayor under fire -

Much of the blame has been heaped on Marcelo Crivella, a former Evangelical pastor who is halfway through his term as Rio's mayor.

Rescue workers at the site where two buildings collapsed in Muzema  Rio de Janeiro  Brazil  on April...
Rescue workers at the site where two buildings collapsed in Muzema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on April 12, 2019

Already unpopular for his frosty attitude toward the city's Carnival, Crivella faces impeachment over allegations he illegally extended advertising contracts.

Now he is being skewered for failing to invest enough money in the city's creaky infrastructure.

In response to claims Rio has not spent anything on drainage works since the start of the year, a city government official told AFP that 103 million reais ($26 million) had been allocated for prevention works against flooding so far this year.

But she admitted that the figure for the entire year was down more than 33 percent from 2016, the year before Crivella took office.

- 'Absence of the state' -

Beyond the numbers, the roots of Rio's problems go much deeper.

A cyclist makes his way through a street flooded due to heavy rains in Rio de Janeiro  Brazil
A cyclist makes his way through a street flooded due to heavy rains in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

For decades, authorities have been unable to tame the city's wild expansion as illegal construction proliferated in high-risk areas.

Analysts say the problem has been aggravated by the lack of efficient public transport, which leaves many commuters stuck in traffic for hours.

"Many people often prefer to live in precarious conditions near their place of work when they could live better further away," said Mauricio Ehrlich, a civil engineering professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

"If we want to avoid deaths, we need to remove populations from risky areas and relocate them elsewhere, but often the public authorities do not act in this direction for fear of losing votes in the next election," he said.

Rescue workers carry a corpse after a mudslide caused by heavy rains in Rio de Janeiro  Brazil
Rescue workers carry a corpse after a mudslide caused by heavy rains in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Mauro Pimentel, AFP/File

Ehrlich also denounced the "absence" of the state in areas where residents live under the yoke of drug traffickers and shadowy militias.

Such militias control Muzema favela, where the two buildings collapsed on Friday, killing at least 16 people. Another eight were still missing on Tuesday.

They sell land rights and control access to city services such as water and electricity.

Government officials have tried and failed to stop illegal construction in the city, where some estimate that 50 percent of homes have been built without proper permits.

The state, according to Ehrlich, "is only looking from afar with binoculars."

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