Rio’s rain began around 5:00 pm on Monday, April 5. There was an uncommon convergence of meteorological, maritime and metropolitan geographic factors. An unusually strong and late cold front moving up from Argentina ran into a vast area of heavy, moisture-laden clouds that had been pushed inland from an abnormally warm Atlantic Ocean.
Although the cold front came in with winds of up to 70 kilometers per hour its progress was stymied by the humid mass of air over the continent so it lingered, dumping more than 280 millimeters of rain in less than 24 hours (that is almost a foot of water! and it is a new record; the previous record was 240 centimeters in January 1966). It all proved to be extremely lethal. The last numbers talk about at least 145 deaths.
There were very rough seas, with two-meter waves coming in from the south and, significantly, two high tides: just before 1:00 am and 7:00 am, with a low tide between them that was insignificantly lower than the high tides. What that meant was little room for runoff – certainly not for the enormous runoff of yesterday’s record-breaking rainfall.
In Rio de Janeiro, the metropolitan geography is evaded at one’s risk. The first mistake was the name: there is no river of January. It is just that the bay where the city is located is so big it seemed there had to be a river (but as there isn’t, it means that the water surrounding the city is not rushing out to sea but has come in from the sea).
The city itself perches on a narrow strip of land. On one side, steep mountains of rock covered with a layer of soil. On the other, the water. Those with means have always lived next to the beautiful beaches.
The poor were pushed higher and higher on the precarious mountainsides where, after heavy rains, the soil gets saturated and then the mud, rocks, trees, houses will roar down like angry bulldozers destroying and burying everything in their paths. Almost all the deaths and injuries in Rio and across the bay in Niterói were caused by mudslides.
Downtown the city clogged up. There was just too much water and it could not get out. Rivers and the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (a Rio postcard site) overflowed, as did the storm sewers. There were so many flood points that for most of Tuesday it was impossible to move around the city.
The mayor and governor closed schools, the business community closed shop and urban transportation came to a halt (subway service was irregular and many bus passengers spent the night in their seats). Airports were closed for much of the day, passengers sent to hotels. Even the Rio-Niterói bridge closed for hours.
Electricity was so erratic throughout the day that the city’s main supplier recommended that people avoid using elevators. There were so many emergency calls that Civil Defense officials and the Fire Department warned people to stay in, or get to, a safe place and just remain there – if they could.
The center of Rio de Janeiro (population: 6 million) was a ghost town. One of the neighborhoods hardest hit by flooding was Maracanã, where Brazil’s biggest and most famous soccer stadium is located, along with an enormous sports complex.
Monday night, a women’s volleyball team was practicing there when, along with the neighborhood, the volleyball court was flooded so most of the girls spent the night there. And a game in the Libertadores Cup (a kind of South American soccer championship) between Flamingo (Rio) and Universidade of Chile had to be postponed because the field, stadium, dressing rooms – everything – was flooded.
When an important soccer game is postponed because of rain in Brazil you know something unusual happened.