After a fire swept through a nightclub and killed 238 people in Santa Maria in southern Brazil on January 27 this year, the city of Rio de Janeiro decided to scale down the Carnival festivities.
But two weeks later, when the party began, it was business as usual: more than six million people came out on the streets; tens of thousands flocked to the Sambodromo to watch the samba parade, which started at 9 p.m. and ended at 7 a.m. the next day; and more than 20,000 tourists on 8 cruise ships landed at the city’s main port. With beer flowing like water and amid incessant beating of drums, the whole city throbbed like a single body, swaying to rhythmic beats.
After three-days of non-stop partying, when the people retired to their homes, Rio looked like a small, sleepy town where nothing happens.
The Rio carnival comes and goes every year, without a stampede or a fire breaking out or someone coming under the wheels of speeding cars. Even the criminals take a break and the city is safer than it is normally. It’s not that people’s behaviour changes for these three-days of non-stop partying. The city makes an effort to make the celebrations safe.
Every year, the city government spends millions of dollars on the Carnival, puts more than 7,000 additional policemen on the streets, stations ambulances and doctors at many places across the city, and involves an army of volunteers to make sure nothing goes wrong. “Carnival is a good time to show our expertise in managing big crowds. We like to involve the revellers, the government and the city residents to make it successful,” said Antonio de Mello, Rio’s tourism secretary who launched a ‘Love to Rio, Love to Carnival’ campaign last week.
Without everyone’s cooperation, it won’t work at all. The world associates the Rio carnival with the two-day samba parade, but the real — and much bigger — action happens on the city streets in the form of parties called blocos. Free and informal, the blocos are neighbourhood parties where people turn up with their drums, booze and trumpets, and they sing and dance for hours and days. Anyone can organise a bloco anywhere, provided that they have permission from the city government.
During the last carnival, almost 500 blocos were sanctioned by the city, with the one in Cinelandia neighbourhood attracting 1.8 million people on one street. “The whole idea of a bloco is to have fun. Nobody creates any trouble. We have volunteers who manage the crowd, keep it moving and coordinate with the police,” said Juliano Moura, one of the organisers of a bloco in the Centro area. “We are in constant touch with the emergency services.”
Rio spends money and energy on making the world’s largest carnival safe and secure. It is the city’s showcase event, which also brings a good amount of money from tourists. This year, Rio attracted 1.2 million tourists. The country as a whole attracted roughly 6.2 million tourists from inside and outside the nation, and generated $2.9 billion in business. Rio, and Brazil, can’t afford a badly organised carnival.
Now, with the city getting ready to host the Fifa World Cup final in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, Rio is working hard to make its crowd management even better. In the run-up to the Confederations Cup in June this year, the city opened a command centre, where hundreds of policemen keep a watch on the whole city through more than 600 cameras and update the public as well as get feedback through the social media.
But the centre is not all about monitoring. It’s a place that integrates the services of 30 agencies from the police to traffic engineers to geologists to the gas and electricity companies. In the main hall of this operations centre, there is a huge screen with a glowing map that changes focus depending on what the dozens of controllers are looking at. The technology and integration makes sure that in case of a crisis the response is quick and seamless. That’s the key to organising the biggest party on this planet.