Rio building collapse: where is the oversight?

In the past year Rio has seen exploding manhole covers and numerous transit accidents. It might be time to rethink the city's antiquated building codes, says guest blogger Julia Michaels.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
Firefighters work at the site of a building that collapsed in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, early on Friday. The building collapsed on Wednesday. The Municipal Theater is in the background.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

When an illegal gas canister exploded one morning last October at the downtown Filé Carioca restaurant, killing four and bringing down much of the building it was housed in, residents of Rio de Janeiro discovered just how spotty safety inspections are.

“The firemen aren’t equipped to inspect every building,” fire chief Sérgio Simões told the Rio newspaper O Dia. “We inspect in response to reports of irregularities”.

After that tragedy, the mayor and the fire department promised to do a better job.

This week a twenty-story building, also downtown, collapsed onto two other buildings, destroying all three. Six bodies have been recovered and 24 people are missing. So far, it appears that unreported renovations may have destabilized the tallest building according to Brazilian newspaper Terra (in Portuguese).

Social media chatter has brought to light a shocking truth: in Rio de Janeiro (and perhaps all of Brazil?), renovations are the full responsibility of the project engineer and the building owner. No government inspections are carried out – except for when the building first goes up.

“You’d need thousand of inspectors, paid with citizens’ taxes. Do you want to pay more taxes for this? Or an inspection fee?” asked one Facebook thread commenter.

An architect, in response to the same thread, said the city is responsible for keeping every new building’s original plans, for reference during renovation – but that he’s found these blueprints are often unavailable.

In many countries, inspection fees are indeed charged when renovation takes place, for everything from commercial construction to home improvement. This involves bureaucracy, but insurance companies don’t insure uninspected work. The process is meant to safeguard the public at large, and in the case of an accident, facilitates investigations, prosecution, and legal decisions regarding blame and compensation.

Who will pay for the damages and suffering in this week’s tragic case? So far, the State Social Aid Secretariat has said it will pay burial costs for the dead, and the state council of engineers mentioned that the engineer in charge of the unreported work could lose his license. Insurance hasn’t been mentioned – and neither the owner’s name nor that of the engineer in charge of the work has been made public.

Up until last month when bus corridors were instituted in Rio de Janeiro, it was a city where one could bring a municipal bus to a stop anywhere at all, simply by raising a finger. More of a village, than a city.

But the village is in fact a city of 12 million people, boasting plans for grandeur with hammers, drills, and bulldozers. As the building progresses, as investment flows in, and tourists arrive, demand for city services and oversight is mushrooming. But not being met. When you Google the words inspeção de obras Rio de Janeiro, or construction inspection Rio de Janeiro, this is what you see at the top of the page.

Click here to see the same Google results in English.

In the last year Rio has seen exploding manhole covers, trolley, ferry, and bus accidents, metro stoppages, and electrical blackouts, among other catastrophes.

Meanwhile, the city council plays almost no role in drafting public policy, and Mayor Eduardo Paes has focused on a constant “shock of order” campaign which started in 2009 to combat disorder in public spaces. This has included expanding and training the municipal guard, and prioritizing a crackdown on illegal parking and street vendors.

But it might just be time to create a task force to rethink the city’s antiquated building codes and zoning regulations– and the way they are enforced. Otherwise, the grandeur could well remain in the realm of illusion.

--- Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

Get daily or weekly updates from delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.