We’d been out to dinner, Celina, her mother, cousin Toni and me. Luckily Toni is a member of The Rio de Janeiro Country Club in Ipanema and had invited us there. The club was established in 1919 by English ex-pats and their Brazilian chums and still retains its early English influence.
During dinner it starts raining; for those of you familiar with a tropical deluge, multiple by three! Sheets of water drop vertically from the night sky; torrents run off the outside awnings, designed to keep the club members shaded from the hot sun. It is still pouring when we leave the table around 2130 but by now the wind has increased and, outside the solidity of the clubhouse, the night takes on a very different feeling. Lakes of brown dirty water are forming on the streets; trees bend to the wind.
We have two options to return to São Conrado. One via Niemeyer, a narrow twisty-windy road that hugs the sea, along the side of the Two Brothers mountain and the other via the tunnels slightly further inland. The trouble with the former is the run-off from the mountain can be like a waterfall, washing across the road and potentially causing a dangerous situation.
We choose the other route. Sloshing through the streets, the car wipers hardly keeping pace with the volumes of water, we arrive by the Rio Jockey Club. Chaos! Clearly Rio is suffering a catastrophic extreme tropical storm. It was later reported that wind speeds of over 110 kms per hour (70 mph) were recorded. Traffic backs up in all directions. We creep along, the vision forward blurred by others’ hazard warning lights.
A tree has come down; we give the branches a wide berth. A traffic sign hangs drunkenly across the street. Over an hour we travel half a mile. Another green-and-white directional sign is propped up by the road: ‘Barra’ and ‘São Conrado’ suddenly are heavenwards! I think we all silently pray a tree or sign would not fall on us, but don’t voice our concerns. We press on, trying to get some news on the radio. At 2300 we learn that some parts of the Rocinha favela, home to some 80,000 people, are in danger of landslips and are being evacuated. Between the two tunnels the dual carriageway is severely restricted by deep puddles of water and collapsed sapling-like trees which have given up their struggle against the wind. Into the second tunnel; by this time everyone is silently beginning to think about a pee. Easy for us men, not so for the two women! I succumb and, mindful of the way motorcyclists weave in and out of the traffic lanes at will, relieve myself against the tunnel wall. I make the mistake of putting out my hand to steady myself …. and end up with the tips of my fingers black with diesel fume extract and brake lining powder!
People start walking towards the open end of the tunnel, maybe wanting to see what’s going on or maybe just going up into Rocinha which lies on the right at the end. We edge another few metres forward …. another 200 metres …….. and stop. We still can’t see the night sky and I feel like a rat trapped in a drainpipe.
We eventually emerge. The midnight news headlines reports that a tree has fallen onto a bus on that Niemeyer coastal road; one person has been killed. We shudder, sad for everyone concerned but glad we didn’t go that way. We reach the turn-off to Rua Joa and see it’s a river of mud, floating vehicles and stone blocks; we try a little slip road further on but a bus has skewed across the mud and it’s blocked. It’s stopped raining and Celina and I decide to make the rest of the journey on foot, leaving her mother and Toni to find a hotel in Barra.
We slip and slide, using the torch on my iPhone, wishing we had recharged it fully earlier (!), up over the grassy bank on to Rua Joa; this part is clear of the mud, just covered in fast flowing water. Three hundred metres uphill and we turn into Rua Iposeria; what happened in January last year has been repeated. Now, as then, so much water has come off the Pedra da Gavea mountain that its force has lifted hundreds of the 20cm granite blocks that form the road surface and thrown them aside. The 150 kg side stones are also unable to withstand the force of the water; once one has moved, its neighbour has also slipped.
This hadn’t happened once since Celina’s parents bought the house in 1969 – confirmation that extreme weather is becoming more common as the planet warms.
We find the security guards; one offers to escort us, with his large torch, up to Celina’s mother’s house as there are power cables hanging loose! Thirty minutes later we have negotiated the mud and rock strewn road, missed the gaping drop into a destroyed sewer, slipped past a landslip almost blocking the road, ducked under and over cables hanging from a collapsed electricity pylon, and arrive.
In the cold light of day!
We shove hard against the pedestrian door and squeeze through; on the other side bricks, tree branches and mud have collected. Everywhere underfoot is covered with slippery mud. Carefully we climb the steps to the front door and unlock it. It’s obvious from our first steps that the floor is covered in water but without much light it’s difficult to establish how much damage has been done or indeed whether any sewerage or snakes have come in. We struggle to find some candles and some dry matches as there is no power; we wonder why the loo wouldn’t flush properly and go to bed; it was 0245.
Four hours later we are beginning the clean up in the pale light of dawn. Aguinaldo the gardener and handyman arrives at 0700 and we survey the damage. One of the large water tanks has been destroyed when a large retaining wall collapsed; the house immediately above us has had a sewer pipe rupture; a water mark on the wall outside the glass rear door in the sitting room shows that a metre of water had built up then, nowhere to go, it had simply seeped under the door into the house. Outside a large electricity concrete pylon has buckled under the weight of a reinforced stone wall’s collapse and the cables snake down the street.
Two days later, the access road is still unusable, there’s no power or water and no forecast of their return; we’ve emptied both fridges and freezers, decamped to a hotel, and left Aguinaldo to feed Ze the green parakeet.
On Friday we go to the Gavea Golf & Country Club to have a shower and lunch. The hundred acres of the golf course had not been spared from the mud and the army of the Gavea workforce were working to restore the pristine green conditions. Outside, the road, that two nights before had been under a metre of mud and sludge, was being cleaned by a municipal task force. The socialist in me wondered whether it had occurred to anyone in the club management that their equipment and manpower could have been used outside, for the betterment of the city, even for a day, than trying to restore the fairways so the members could play. Sitting by the pool I realise the irony of my thoughts!
Richard ……. written 9th February 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org
PS Ten days after the storm, the power and water are back on, but earth slips and dangerous looking walls dictate we will not return to the house for a while. (15th February 2019)