Brazilian flood death toll rises to over 500


MORE THAN 500 people are confirmed dead after mudslides and flooding struck towns in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro state and, with rescuers yet to reach cut-off communities, authorities fear the death toll will rise.

The 20,000 residents of São José do Vale do Rio Preto were still cut off yesterday. One report said the local police station was completely destroyed. The town is without water and electricity and phone communications are cut, making it impossible for authorities to estimate how many people may have died there.

Local civil defence in Petrópolis said two of the 41 bodies recovered so far in the city are of residents reported missing from São José do Vale do Rio Preto, 50km upriver.

Saturated following weeks of heavy rain, hillsides across the region gave way in the early hours of Wednesday after some localities had received close to a month’s rain in less than 24 hours.

Whole neighbourhoods were hit, with rivers of mud swallowing up many buildings while smashing others to rubble. Roads and bridges across the region have been swept away, slowing efforts to reach more isolated towns.

Worst hit were the cities of Nova Friburgo and Teresópolis. Most of the dead were residents of shanty towns perched precariously on the steep hillsides of this picturesque tourist region. Many families were killed as they slept.

Designed to receive 20 bodies per month, the morgue in Teresópolis was reported to be on the verge of collapse, unable to cope with the 175 remains it has received already, forcing authorities to line up bodies under an awning in the tropical summer heat. The city’s mayor said his local government never received a warning about the coming storm which the state’s civil defence said it e-mailed to municipalities in the region.

The death toll so far makes the disaster the worst to strike Brazil since 1967, when flash floods killed 785 people in Rio state. More than 13,000 people have been left homeless and more rain is forecast.

January is the height of the region’s tropical rainy season.

After visiting the region, Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, criticised the country’s poor record on public housing, which experts say aggravated the tragedy. For decades, local and state governments have tolerated the unregulated construction of whole neighbourhoods in areas known to be at risk from flooding and mudslides.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday after viewing the devastation, a solemn Ms Rousseff said that reconstruction work should focus on preventing such disasters in the future. “We have seen regions where mountains dissolved, without human presence. But we have also seen regions where irregular occupation of the soil provokes damages to life and the health of people,” she said.

“We have to remember than in Brazil there was an absolute negligence about where poorer people would live.

“Without an alternative, this population went to live in ditches and on the side of hills. Housing in areas of risk in Brazil is the rule, not the exception.”