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Rains in Rio: The Story That Got Lost Between Carnival and the Military Intervention

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Monday, February 5

The end-of-summer rains began in Rio, without major structural impacts. Remaining fairly light, they were a cause for celebration as they led to cooler temperatures. Cecília Oliveira, a journalist and one of the coordinators of Fogo Cruzado (Crossfire), an app that monitors gun shots in Rio de Janeiro, had another reason for celebrating the rain:

January was TERRIBLE. Last week only Jesus could have helped us. Many, many shootings. So many hours of shooting. Shooting that began before 6am and lasted until nightfall. Many stray bullets. Many residents in a state of panic. February began at the same pace. Insane. This weekend people died all over the place. Also in Carnival street blocos… Work on the Fogo Cruzado App was tense.

But it is raining today. Hallelujah! It’s amazing how the bullets calm down. It’s crazy. Rain is Rio’s best security policy.

Wednesday, February 14

Beginning on the evening of Ash Wednesday and continuing through the early hours of Thursday morning, heavy precipitation and strong winds left the city in a state of crisis. It was one of the most severe rain storms ever recorded by Rio’s Center of Operations.

Noemy Farneze, resident of City of God and editor-in-chief of the online portal CDD na Web, says messages about the storm began circulating on Facebook, WhatsApp, and by telephone as soon as the rain began. “This is a community of more than 60,000 with areas of extreme poverty, which turned out to be the areas most affected. Many people lost everything: furniture, clothing, and food.”

Nathan Borges, born and raised in the community, shares his recollections of the storm: “My mother and I were watching the announcement of Carnival results, after [soccer team] Vasco’s game. Everything was normal. Then it started to rain. I think it was seven o’clock. A strong summer rain, but normal. The river was full, but it hadn’t overflowed yet. But the favela was full of garbage. The trash collectors hadn’t been working, due to Carnaval or something. And then, of course, it flooded. It was very fast. Very, very fast. My mother had already gone through the flood of ’96 and was afraid—’It’ll flood, it’ll flood, it’s going up.’ When the water began to enter, she collapsed. She began to cry.”

Borges continues: “My grandmother can’t walk. We climbed the stairs with her, rushing for the second floor, and the water was already reaching the second floor. When I went back downstairs to find my IDs, the water already reached my knees. Only a minute and a half had passed. When I returned to turn off the circuit breaker, so no one would be electrocuted [if the electricity turned back on], it was at waist level. Inside the house! On the street, the water came up to the middle of my stomach, and I’m 5’7! There was a lot of trash. Rats, cockroaches. It was very tense.”

The thought to turn off the circuit breaker may not have crossed everyone’s mind and is indicative of yet one more dimension of inequality affecting the city—in other parts of the city residents wouldn’t have to think of it. “It’s ‘lucky’ the electricity went out before the flood and we avoided the combination of electricity and water,” reflects Farneze.

At 3am electricity returned to most homes, but in some places where trees fell on wires residents remained without power for over 24 hours. The power outage wasn’t the only harmful consequence of the flood: “The next day we went downstairs to see. My house is one step below street level, so we had to get the water out. I already had tried to drain it into the street, but we had to open the door and draw it out of the house [because it didn’t drain]. There was a lot of trash. The refrigerator was turned over. My bed, which is a trundle bed, I lost. My wardrobe was split in half,” recounts Borges, who shows incredible resilience, not seeming to have let it all get him down.

On the contrary, he demonstrates an exceptional degree of determination for a 17-year-old: “It’s more relaxed now. People helped us: our family and friends. We only managed to clean it all up after three days. We were able to mobilize five people to help.” On top of helping his family and studying, Borges is a theater teacher at the Associação Semente da Vida (ASVI—Seed of Life Association) and works as a producer and DJ in City of God.

For those who are not fortunate enough to have the help of family and friends, members of CDD na Web and other residents organize to collect donations. “We have intensified our efforts to assist in the Brejo area, beyond Caratê, which is the most precarious area in the community, and there people can donate not only food, clothes, and water, but also diapers and milk.”

It is not only in City of God that the rain had dramatic consequences. Four people died and an estimated 2,000 are homeless throughout the city of Rio de Janeiro. Most of the displaced are from Complexo do Alemão. In the Parque Everest community alone, 250 families are being aided by the Social Work and Human Rights Secretariat, entry is now forbidden to 41 houses, and one teen was killed in a collapse. In the lower part of the community, mud overflowed from the Faria Timbó river, not for the first time.

It is no coincidence that displacements due to the floods conformed to a territorial pattern: they were concentrated in Rio’s North and West Zones and were most frequent in favelas, where infrastructure that should be provided by the State is most fragile. Beyond Alemão, 120 families were displaced in Jardim Maravilha (a residential development in Campo Grande), four families in Morro dos Macacos (in Vila Isabel), 16 in Jacarezinho, and 25 in Serrinha in Madureira. Sleeping mats and basic food supplies were distributed and some families asked the authorities for help.

In addition to the families displaced, supplies of water and electricity were interrupted in various parts of the city. Mayor Marcelo Crivella, conducting a controversial visit to Europe at the time, said he was following the situation from afar.

Meanwhile, residents organized themselves to receive and deliver donations. In Jacarezinho, residents began to offer what they could in community social media groups even before other residents emerged requesting donations. In Alemão, members of the Voz das Comunidades news team gathered water and hygiene products. In Acari, the Fala Akari Collective and the Poet Deley de Acari Cultural Center created an Emergency Working Group to gather basic food items, bedding, and clothing for more than 100 families affected by the rain. In Manguinhos, the director of the Clóvis Monteiro High School was also collecting donations.

Friday, February 16

Residents of Muzema, in the West Zone, complained that electricity had not been restored more than a day after the storm: “It’s already been more than 24 hours that we haven’t had power in our homes… No one’s helped us. As for [electric utility] Light, we called directly and nobody’s helped,” one resident said. According to a video report, Light said it could not give a specific date by which power would be restored. Residents of City of God blocked lanes of Ayrton Senna Avenue to protest the continued power outage.

City officials estimated that 100,000 people still did not have power. The selectivity of Light’s service provision was apparent in the speed with which services returned to neighborhoods in the South Zone in comparison with those in the North and West Zones.

Residents of Vila Kennedy occupied lanes of Brasil Avenue to protest the ongoing power outage. Others remained homeless. Complaints about neglect by Light and about the City’s inadequate response to the effects of the rain, however, were overshadowed in the newspapers by the announcement of the federal military intervention.

Saturday, February 17

Mayor Crivella returned from his European trip and said Rio responded well to the rains. Given the lack of commentary beyond Crivella’s statement in city newspapers, Luiz Baltar, photographer and member of the Favela em Foco collective, posted on Facebook:

It’s not in the media, and for this reason it’s not a subject of Facebook posts, but there are hundreds of families who were affected by the weather, who lost everything and still lack electricity.

Various communities and favelas in Rio are suffering due to the tragedy provoked by the early Thursday morning rains: Alemão, Manguinhos, Jacaré, streets near Avenida dos Democráticos, and all around the Faria Timbó river were affected. Hundreds of families lost everything. In some places the water rose more than two meters, knocking down walls. Tons of mud and trash accumulated in the streets, awaiting the few teams from [municipal waste utility] Comlurb. The press is not giving the much-needed attention to this tragedy and those affected remained helpless, relying solely on the solidarity of organized society. Various locales are receiving donations.

Monday, February 19

The organization Meu Rio launched its “Rain of Solidarity” campaign to collect donations of food, water, and furniture for families who lost furniture and houses in the favelas of Acari, Alemão, City of God, and Manguinhos. In addition to collecting donations, the campaign aimed to connect people who could receive and redistribute these resources in the affected communities. Meu Rio also promised to continue to monitor the investments of City Hall in projects to prevent future tragedies.

Tuesday, February 20

City councillor Marielle Franco made her final speech to the City Council, questioning the military intervention. In addition to articulating her concern about “where the rifles will be pointed,” she criticized authorities’ incapacity to prioritize projects to mitigate the consequences of the heavy rainfall: “I want to know where the responsibility of legislators lies, who are not paying attention to the severity of the current situation, who speak of federal intervention, of military intervention—but we still haven’t addressed a problem that should have sparked a direct intervention in the situation of the City of Rio after the recent rain on Thursday! The situation of calamity, which since last year has yet to result in the intervention [with investments in risk mitigation] that should have been implemented!”

Wednesday, February 21

More rains punished Rio. Again, Mayor Crivella was away from the city. He was in Brasília seeking resources to “carry out social projects in areas afflicted by organized crime,” arguing that military intervention wasn’t enough and that federal investment in social projects was also urgently needed. So far, no investments had been made in the areas that he had deemed “afflicted by organized crime,” whether in terms of social projects or in terms of infrastructure to mitigate the effects of heavy rainfall.

As rains continued to fall on Rio, the mayor made a joke: “In São Paulo they also have flooding. So much so that they could launch a new program: Balsa Família!” ‘Balsa’ is Portuguese for ‘ferry,’ a play on words referring to the federal conditional cash transfer program, Bolsa Família (Family Stipend), which has been credited with helping millions of Brazilians escape extreme poverty.

Wednesday, April 4

Seven weeks after the disaster, Rio’s city government liberated funds for rent assistance for 270 families in Complexo de Alemão, most of whom lived in Parque Everest. This concession was the result of pressure from the community’s local Housing Commission, a group that has consistently demanded social rent support since the period of construction of Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) projects. “Our biggest fight is with the state government. But then there was the rain on February 15, and Parque Everest was heavily affected. These families are being removed by the city government,” said Alemão resident and commission member, Camila Santos, who was evicted from Favelinha da Skol in order to make way for PAC development projects.

“Parque Everest has existed for 25 years and has suffered floods for 25 years. I lived there for a time. The families do not want to be removed because their life histories are there. But it has been 25 years of losing so much. Our demand is for dignified housing. The City says it will build apartments here along Avenida Itaoca. But while construction is underway, the people need to be included in rent assistance programs. This way they can choose where to live,” Santos says.

Rent assistance payments will be made through Banco do Brasil, and not Caixa Econômica as is standard practice for the families who already receive the benefit. This effectively creates another bureaucratic obstacle to accessing the money, since people will have to find the time to open an account. “It is a process,” Santos explains. “It isn’t like you sign up and get your rent check the same day. Even if your home has collapsed it takes months to begin to receive rent assistance. The Civil Defense came, declared no-entry to everyone’s homes. Then Crivella saw there was no other way. On March 6 he announced he would remove the community. From there, the SMH [Municipal Housing Secretariat] arrived to register families [for the social rent program]. It isn’t simple, they have to go from house to house, you have to have all the necessary documentation, for your partner as well. They have to take photos, measure the house. It takes ages. It appears that everything is done extra slowly, because it’s for the poor.”

As of this article’s publication, the affected families in Parque Everest have not received their rent assistance. Most are staying in the homes of family and friends. As for Nathan Borges’ home, a souvenir remains: “There’s still a watermark on the wall, we have to paint it.” The season of heavy rains has passed, but without public investments to fortify slopes and in drainage, regular waste collection, efficient rapid response mechanisms, among other things, the same effects are expected for future years’ rains, just as they occurred in previous years.