Brazil mudslides: Deadly disaster catches country offguard


[Editor's note: The death toll from flooding and mudslides in southeastern Brazil climbed to at least 665 people, according to a report on Tuesday.]

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The first sign of trouble was the trouble itself.

“It sounded like an earthquake, everything was snapping and cracking,” said Zeni da Silva, recalling the night mudslides killed hundreds of people in her hometown of Teresopolis in the mountains north of Rio. “I thought it was the end of the world.”

In the aftermath, the 42-year-old housekeeper said she labored through the waist-deep mud surrounding her home, navigating by flashes of lightning, until reaching her sister’s house in a safer part of town. There, speaking by phone on Friday, she described the landslides that on Jan. 11 and 12 left more than 500 people dead across the region.

“No one ever told me, ‘Be careful, there’s a lot of rain coming and the mountain could come crumbling down,’” da Silva said. “No one here imagined this could happen.”

It has been a week of flooding across the southern hemisphere. Australia was particularly swamped, with floodwaters there covering an area larger than Texas. Rain is still falling and rescuers are still recovering the dead — 16 and counting for Australia; 555 so far in Brazil.

As the death toll mounts, some officials here are asking why floods kill hundreds in Brazil but only dozens in a place like Australia. Brazil’s steep, slide-prone hills are part of the story, as are the fragile homes the poor often build on those hills. But some say the real culprit is Brazil’s failure to plan ahead.

“The fact is, there is no preparedness,” said Chico Alencar, a congressman from the state of Rio de Janeiro. “There’s no evacuation plan for storms or natural disasters in this region.”

Despite the fact that annual rains routinely trigger deadly landslides, Alencar said Brazil has too few technicians trained to predict dangerous weather and scant means for transmitting warnings. “We’re still taking our first steps when it comes to meteorological information,” he said.

The public safety gap seems characteristic of this growing, globalized nation. Turn on a radio in Rio for any length of time and a song by Lady Gaga is bound to play. Less so, announcements like, “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system.”

Alencar says a heavy rain warning was issued from Brasilia, the capital, but it seems few, if any, towns received it.

“I can assure you this disaster could have been minimized,” he said. “In Australia — which had more precipitation than here — there were maybe 20 lives lost.”

The United Nations’ Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlstrom, to some extent agreed. She told the BBC Friday that gaps in communication and emergency planning helped make Brazil’s tragedy much deadlier than Australia’s.

“Because of the occurrence of cyclones, Australia had already begun to prepare for the unpredictable,” she said. “The authorities know how to evacuate areas and the population listens to the directions on the radio.”

Before this week, the worst natural disaster on record was the 1967 flooding and mudslides in Caraguatatuba, on the coast of Sao Paulo state, which killed 436.

Just two weeks into her first term as Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff is now faced with a natural calamity that is widely being called the worst in Brazil’s history.

Visiting the affected areas Thursday, Rousseff blamed Brazil's decades-long policy of allowing poor people to build illegally on steep, marginal land. Loosened by rain, the hills’ thin soil easily slides off the underlying rock.

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

Rousseff said building in areas of risk was “the rule rather than the exception” in Brazil, adding, "When there aren't housing policies, where are people who earn no more than twice the minimum wage going to live?”

In just such a section of Teresopolis, the working people who lived there said flood waters left behind wasteland.

Zenilda da Silva, 40, a day laborer, spent the night listening to the mudslides rumble downhill from her home. The next morning, she said she picked her way through a muddy scene of destruction, passing dead bodies of neighbors and friends from church.

“When I left the house I could see many corpses,” she said in a phone interview. “Places where there were once lots of houses now just look like nothing had ever been built there.”

But da Silva said she was less vexed by her neighborhood’s inability to withstand the flood than the fact that no one knew it was coming.

“We received no warning,” she said. “Not on the radio, not on TV, I hadn’t heard a thing. I was caught off guard. Just like those who died.”