Rio's Olympic Preview: Erupting Manhole Covers and Collapsing Buildings

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Ari Versiani / AFP / Getty Images

Power shovels remove rubble from the collapsed buildings in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 26, 2012.

With the World Cup and Olympics looming, Rio de Janeiro has its hands full preparing to handle the influx of visitors who will besiege the city for the soccer tournament in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. But two tragic events have underlined Rio's need not just to invest in new hotels, venues and transportation but also to take drastic action to shore up the city's crumbling infrastructure.

On Jan. 25, a 20-story office building collapsed in the city center, bringing down two others and killing at least 17 people. Five days later, a manhole cover blew out of the ground, killing one man and injuring two more, the latest in a series of accidents caused by underground explosions. These events come hot on the heels of other tragedies in which pedestrians were hit by crumbling buildings and a shocking accident last August when a defective tram careened out of control, killing six people and injuring 57 more.

The problems, all of them caused by a lack of maintenance or oversight, are forcing even the most fanatical cheerleaders of what locals call the Marvelous City to question its preparations for sports' two biggest events. No one is suggesting the city doesn't need new stadiums, metro lines, bus lanes, hotels and houses, but they are increasingly demanding that those already in use be kept in working order too. "The city urgently needs to rethink its policies and concentrate less on mega public-works projects and more on the existing infrastructure and the maintenance of it," said Rio congressman Chico Alencar. "That becomes more and more apparent with every new accident."

The decay in Rio's infrastructure is partly attributable to Rio's losing its status as Brazil's capital in 1960 — Brasília has been the nation's capital since then — and with the demotion came a loss of jobs, investment and attention. For decades the city was on the skids. As investment dried up, huge slums known as favelas sprouted, crime worsened, and a general malaise set in that was halted only with the successful Olympic bid in October 2009. As the recent tragedies show, that lack of investment eventually takes its toll. As with a once gorgeous Copacabana beauty queen who has spent too long in the sun, the wrinkles are showing.

And yet Rio has rarely been so alluring, at least to those with money to spend. Between now and 2013, the greater Rio de Janeiro area is expected to receive about $102 billion in investment, according to Firjan, the Rio state federation of industries. The amount, says Firjan, means Rio will get more investment for its size — some $4 million per sq km — than any other city in the world over the next year.

Most of the money, however, is going to the country's fast-growing oil and gas industries, not the World Cup or Olympics, much less the maintenance or improvement of the city's crumbling infrastructure, much of which dates back to the first half of the 20th century. Brazilian politicians have directed funds more toward visible vote winners than the maintenance of infrastructure, even when the need was obvious — and the consequences sometimes fatal. The death caused by the manhole cover was blamed on the ignition of an oil buildup inside a drain and was similar to scores of such incidents that have shaken the city since 2010. But those incidents, including one in which two American tourists were badly burned after a manhole cover in Copacabana blew off and a fireball roared out the open drain, continue to this day as the electricity company responsible labors to check all the underground chambers housing faulty old equipment. City officials say there are 289 manhole covers at risk, but the Rio state prosecutor's office last year put the number at closer to 4,000.

As Cariocas, as people from Rio are known, live in a state of anxiety, not knowing whether to check the ground for erupting iron or the sky for falling concrete, they are also looking askance — at the authorities. In a patently transparent move to protect itself from liability, the city government last week passed a law prohibiting sidewalk cafés and bars from placing tables or chairs on top of manhole covers. "If a manhole cover explodes and hurts someone, the mayor's office can always argue that the citizen was contravening the law [by being there]," wrote Andre Barcinski, a critic at Brazil's biggest newspaper, the Folha de S. Paulo. "That's how our mayors' offices work: when they can't resolve a problem, they invent a law to penalize the public."