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Brazilian president visits mudslide areas as death toll continues to rise

Posted by Admin on January 17, 2011

Rescuers have yet to reach some of the worst-hit areas • Rousseff says illegal occupation of steep hillsides cost lives

More than 500 people are known to have died in Brazil after torrential rains sent avalanches of mud and debris smashing on to towns in a mountainous area outside Rio de Janeiro.

The official death toll has reached 527 in what is being described as one of the country’s worst natural disasters, and rescuers have yet to reach some of the worst-hit areas – including one neighbourhood where 150 houses were reportedly swept away. The toll seems certain to rise considerably.

Nearly all of those killed were buried alive when avalanches of mud and debris fell on to their homes in the Serrana region in the early hours of Wednesday. At least 13,000 people have been left homeless.

It is an immediate crisis for Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who took over from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva a fortnight ago. After a brief visit to the affected region yesterday, Rousseff called the disaster an act of God, but said the tragedy could not be blamed on nature alone.

“We saw areas in which mountains untouched by men dissolved. But we also saw areas in which illegal occupation caused damage to the health and lives of people,” she said.

Many of the destroyed homes had been built precariously on steep hillsides, and Rousseff said housing in areas of risk was the rule rather than the exception in Brazil. “When there aren’t housing policies, where are people who earn no more than twice the minimum wage going to live?” she said.

Teresópolis, a bucolic tourist town 60 miles north of Rio, was one of the hardest-hit areas: by last night at least 200 deaths had been confirmed. Local authorities were preparing to erect floodlights in the cemetery in order to hold round-the-clock burials. The town’s streets filled with pick-up trucks packed with fleeing residents, carrying mattresses and pets.

In Campo Grande, a shanty town on the outskirts of Teresópolis that was almost completely enveloped by falling rubble and mud, residents said as many as 300 bodies had been buried after a dam burst, triggering a landslide that consumed nearly everything in its path, tossing pick-up trucks into sitting rooms and a delivery truck into a tree.

“It’s ugly, really ugly,” said Vicente Luiz Florente, a 50-year-old builder who had travelled to the area in search of his brother. “This was a community – now all you can see is rocks.”

Further up the road, rescue workers unearthed another five bodies, including a young child whose limp corpse was wrapped in a black bin liner and dispatched to the local morgue in a mud-covered ambulance.

“We can’t be certain about reducing the impact of the rains, but we cannot allow people to die – this is our mission,” Rousseff said.

In Nova Friburgo, a neighbouring town of Teresópolis, at least 214 bodies have been recovered.

“This family no longer exists,” read the headline of a Rio tabloid, alongside the photo of a prominent fashion designer and former Newsweek employee who was buried alongside eight relatives.

“It’s a terrible scene,” said a local judge, Jos� Ricardo Ferreira de Aguiar, as he pulled back a black tarpaulin and stepped into Teresópolis’s improvised mortuary – the garage of the town’s police station.

On the concrete floor before him lay 100 bodies, among them new-born babies, toddlers, elderly women and teenagers. Caked in brown mud and draped with pieces of soggy cardboard, the bodies were piled in a confusion of arms and legs.

Relatives were led into the morgue in groups of four to identify bodies splayed out under pieces of cardboard, sheets and muddy duvets. Those that had already been identified had tatty paper ID tags tied on to their toes.

“There’s no chance of even making this human,” Aguiar said. “We’ve just never seen anything like it here.”

Mario Sergio Macario, 22, a student who has been given the job of guarding the morgue’s entrance, said several colleagues from his tourism course were missing. “The station is chaos. It’s a public calamity. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

Speaking after a helicopter flight over Teresópolis, Rio’s environment secretary, Carlos Minc, described the mudslides as the worst catastrophe in the region’s history.

“I believe the death toll is much higher than has been so far announced,” he said. “Many people died in their sleep. The mountainsides are coming down. The areas are very unstable.”

Angela Marina de Carvalho Silva, who believes she may have lost 15 relatives to the flood, including five nieces and nephews, said: “There are so many disappeared and so many that will probably never be found. There was nothing we could do. It was hell.”

Carvalho Silva took refuge in a neighbour’s house on high ground with her husband and daughter, and watched the torrential rain carry away cars, tree branches and animals and tear apart the homes of friends and family.

“It’s over. There’s nothing. The water came down and swept everything away,” said her husband, Sidney Silva.

Brazil Natural disasters and extreme weather Tom Phillips Peter Walker Guardian News & Media Limited 2011


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