Death toll passes 600 in Rio de Janeiro


AUTHORITIES IN Rio de Janeiro state have been forced to declare a “state of calamity” in the mountain region devastated by mudslides as the death toll passed 600 and rescuers struggled to reach isolated communities five days after torrential rains struck.

The number of dead rose steadily through the weekend as more bodies were pulled from neighbourhoods that were buried when rain-saturated hillsides collapsed on them in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

With many bodies still feared buried in the mud, health authorities have warned survivors about the risk of disease from drinking contaminated water. Civil defence forces had already started to distribute vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria.

With the rescue operation battling through millions of tonnes of mud, heavy earth-moving equipment has struggled to reach the region as many roads and bridges have been swept away.

The return of heavy rain has complicated relief efforts, leaving locals increasingly angry at the delay in reaching many of the victims and distributing the relief supplies collected across the country.

Police say they will arrest shop owners charging survivors extortionate prices for food, water and other basic goods amid increasing reports of shortages in the region.

In the city of Nova Friburgo, locals are said to be hoarding food, causing shortages and leading to rationing.

The official response to the landslides has exposed Brazil’s lack of preparedness to deal with the impact of a major natural disaster.

Yesterday, the Estado de S Paulonewspaper published a report from Brazil’s own national secretariat of civil defence to the United Nations which said the country’s civil defence system was “unprepared” for dealing with natural disasters.

Sent last November as part of a UN-co-ordinated effort to boost governmental responses to natural disaster in the wake of the Asian tsunami, the report warned “the majority of organs that form part of civil defence are unprepared for the efficient performance of prevention and preparation activities”.

Brazil’s federal government has promised hundreds of millions of euro to help rebuild the affected region.

President Dilma Rousseff said last week the country will have to tackle the legacy of allowing poorer Brazilians build their homes in zones at risk from flooding and landslides.

The majority of the victims from last week’s rains lived in shantytowns built on riverbanks or hugging steep hillsides, many of which were left vulnerable by the removal of forest vegetation.

Rio’s state government had previously identified 6,000 families in Nova Friburgo and Teresópolis, the two worst-affected cities, who lived in danger zones. But only 200 had been resettled by the time last week’s rains struck.

Other states in Brazil’s southeast were also struggling to cope with what is proving to be an exceptionally heavy rainy season.

In the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais, 81 municipalities have declared a state of emergency. Almost 20,000 people have been left homeless and 16 have died since the rains started in November.

In São Paulo state, six people died when returning from a party in the early hours of yesterday morning after their driver failed to notice flooding had washed away a bridge, driving on into the river below.

Weather experts in Brazil have warned that the rainy season still had several weeks to run and, with soil already saturated in many states, there is a heightened risk of further flooding and mudslides.

The unusual intensity of this year’s rains is blamed on the appearance of the La Niña current in the Pacific Ocean, which causes rain-bearing cold fronts to linger over Brazil’s southeast.