Landslides kill at least 380 people in Rio de Janeiro

 

DEADLY LANDSLIDES triggered by torrential rains have killed at least 380 people in towns in Rio de Janeiro state as Brazil’s southeast battles an exceptionally fierce rainy season.

Following weeks of heavy rain, rivers of mud crashed through neighbourhoods in the central mountain region of the state as people slept in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Worst hit is the city Novo Friburgo, where rescuers say 168 bodies have been pulled from the mud so far.

A further 152 died in the mountain resort city of Teresópolis with a further 39 confirmed dead in the old imperial summer capital of Petrópolis.

Facing the first crisis of her presidency, Dilma Rousseff toured the region yesterday. Travelling with her, Rio’s governor Sérgio Cabral said a failure to implement planning regulations in areas at risk from flooding meant the disaster was a “chronicle of a tragedy foretold”.

With many affected neighbourhoods still to be fully checked and locals reporting many people missing in the confusion, the death toll is expected to rise. Authorities say thousands have been left homeless.

“This is the worst disaster in the history of the municipality,” said Teresópolis mayor Jorge Mário Sedlacek.

In Novo Friburgo, the Santo Antônio River rose five metres, bursting its banks and destroying riverside neighbourhoods. Across the regions steep hillsides gave way, collapsing on to neighbourhoods underneath.

Bridges and roads were swept away delaying rescue efforts. Several smaller towns are still completely cut off.

Among the dead are three firemen buried in a secondary mudslide as they searched for survivors in one affected neighbourhood. Navy helicopters are trying to reach the worst affected areas and Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras has sent helicopters normally used for reaching offshore oil platforms to join the rescue operation.

Further complicating efforts to find survivors is the forecast for more rain, despite the region having already received in 13 days more than the forecast for the entire month.

In one 24-hour period, Teresópolis had 124.6mm of rain, bringing its monthly total so far to 219mm, when its January forecast is between 140mm and 200mm.

The death toll has been aggravated by the failure of municipal governments in the region to control where residents – particularly poorer ones – build their homes.

Many neighbourhoods affected were built without planning permission in areas that authorities labelled zones at risk from flooding and mudslides.

Experts have warned for years that the deforestation that comes with creeping informal urbanisation is weakening hillsides in areas prone to heavy rains, raising the risk of mudslides.

The environment secretary of Rio state said the government had previously identified 2,000 families in Teresópolis and 4,000 in Novo Friburgo that were living in areas at risk, with several hundred buildings located in zones designated extreme risk.

Of these, however, only 200 families had been removed before the tragedy struck.

“There has been a history of irresponsibility by several mayors. As well as omitting to impede disorderly occupation [of risky areas], some came to even stimulate occupation of hillsides,” Carlos Minc said to reporters.

The federal government has released €355 million in funds to tackle the crisis. Last year the federal government only spent €1.1 billion of €1.5 billion destined for disaster prevention and response,while the 2011 budget for disaster prevention was cut, despite hundreds of deaths from flooding across Brazil last year.