The new President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has described flooding and landslides in the South East as the country’s worst natural disaster in several decades.
More than 600 people are now thought to have perished in the mountainous Serrana region north of Rio de Janeiro, though the number of dead is likely to rise even further. As morgues filled up last week, witnesses reported seeing crying people in the streets “carrying dead children wrapped in blankets”.
Teams of rescuers from the National Public Security Force have been working in the region, often scrabbling through debris with their bare hands. In the town of Teresopolis, three or four neighbourhoods in rural outskirts were washed away, with few houses left standing and roads and bridges destroyed. Though searchers mostly found only corpses, one 6-month old baby was rescued from the rubble of a house and another woman was lifted to safety from surging water in a dramatic rescue broadcast to television news across the world.
Having visited the affected area, Ms Rousseff described the scenes she had witnessed as “shocking” and labelled the destruction “an act of God”. However, the President was also angered by the illegal occupation of land where poorly-constructed houses have been situated in dangerous hillside locations. Ms Rousseff told reporters that poor planning and the building of properties in high-risk areas was “the rule in Brazil rather than the exception”. But she acknowledged that where families were on low incomes and living in regions with no proper housing policies, they would choose affordable areas even where building was not allowed.
Over 13,000 people have been made homeless by the flooding and donations of food, water and clothing have been pouring in from around the country. The Brazilian armed forces set up a field hospital to treat the injured, since medical services in the region were overwhelmed. The President has already pledged 480 million dollars in emergency funding for the area. As well as providing assistance for reconstruction, Ms Rousseff has said “stopping future tragedies would be a priority”. Brazil is used to seeing deaths and destruction caused by flash floods and mudslides. However the number of dead in the Serrana region has already surpassed the disaster of 1967, when 430 people lost their lives in Caraguatatuba in Sao Paulo.
Apart from the loss of life and damage to buildings and infrastructure, there is also the concern about the spread of disease, with corpses still remaining buried under mud after five days, particularly in hard-to-reach remote areas. Health authorities are warning the local population to avoid using any water sources which could be contaminated and the Civil Defence agency has begun distributing vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria.