Death Toll from Brazil Flooding Continues to Rise

The death from devastating flooding continues to rise Sunday, surpassing 600, the government said. At least 655 deaths were reported in a mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro state, northeast of the city of Rio. Other states in the South American country have also seen heavy rainfall. Last week, authorities in neighbouring Sao Paulo state said 24 people had been killed by flooding. Forecasters there said late Sunday that an approaching cold front could bring more flooding and landslides.

Most of the deaths in Rio de Janeiro state were reported in the cities of Nova Friburgo and Teresopolis, with 302 and 276 fatalities, respectively. The state’s health and civil defence department reported 58 fatalities in the town of Petropolis and 19 in Sumidouro. Officials in that office also warned residence of the risk of waterborne diseases. Several thousand vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria have been disturbed, they said. In Petropolis, authorities are urging residence and rescue workers to get vaccinated against tetanus and the waterborne disease leptospirosis, reported Globo news group.

Rescuers have not been able to reach some hard-hit areas, and many more people are feared dead. The rain is predicted to continue for several days in areas already submerged in water or slathered with mud. Members of the army entered parts of Teresopolis and were able to rescue 110 families. But at least 10 main highways remain blocked in the rugged area north of Rio where the slides hit, hampering efforts to move the heavy machinery needed to begin massive cleanup efforts and eventually dig out bodies stuck under tonnes of mud and debris. The troops plan to set up mobile bridges that can span 60 metres and are robust enough to support the hundreds of pieces of big equipment needed in cleanup and recovery efforts.

Pilots said flying was still treacherous in the area full of jagged mountain peaks, wehre there are few safe landing zones and power lines are draped between peaks through seemingly clear space. “These are the most challenging conditions I’ve flown in,” said Adalberto Ortale, a helicopter pilot for Ibama, the enforcement branch of the Environment Ministry. “The majority of people doing the flying are not from here and you have to orient yourself on the fly.” (CBC)

Thousands of families are still living on mountain slopes or on riverbanks and face extreme risk of being washed away. One resident described the disaster as a tsunami that fell from the sky.

In a statement, Rio Gov. Sergio Cabral said he had a panic attack while he was traveling to Nova Friburgo and saw a devastated mountainside.

Outside a makeshift morgue in Teresopolis, a crowd of people waited for their turn to identify loved ones.

Marco Antonio Siqueira Costa said the last time he saw his brother, sister-in-law and niece was a few days ago, before mud buried their house. “I think that last meeting was God’s way of granting us a farewell,” he said. (CNN)

Residents in the city donned masks and helped clean streets or deliver first aid. Others combed the city searching desperately for missing loved ones.

Eunice Peixoto de Souza, 57, said she was thankful for the shelter and the hot lunches served at the Teresopolis gymnasium, where she has been staying for five days with three of her children and three grandchildren. But she has nowhere else to go, and the prospect of spending another week, or weeks, on the thin foam mattresses laid on the floor is hard to bear. “We lost everything, and we can’t pay rent,” she said. “I want a place that will let my family stay together, but I haven’t heard any word from the government yet.” One of her sons is still living in his home in a high-risk area. Peixoto de Souza wants him to leave, but he won’t bring his children to the cramped gym. “What can I tell him? Take them to live under a bridge?” she asked, upset. “We’re waiting for word from the government. I am certain that God will provide.” (CBC)

Red Cross volunteer Maria Helena de Jesus was helping with first aid. “You have to almost have a heart of stone,” she said. “It was very difficult.” (CNN)

In Teresopolis, mayors from three hard-hit cities planned to begin co-ordinating reconstruction efforts, which have been estimated at $1.2 billion. At least 5,000 new homes must be built for those who lost everything. Roads, bridges and commercial buildings need to be repaired or razed and replaced.

Teresopolis Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek declared his city a natural disaster area. Mayor Sedlacek said more than 2,000 tents were being brought in, each capable of sheltering up to 10 people. Teresopolis has more than 3,000 people who were made homeless by the slides.

President Dilma Rousseff flew over flood-affected areas last week and landed in Friburgo, the agency said. The floods are her first test as president. She trudged through mud to talk to residents in a neighbourhood where for of seven firefighters trying to rescue people had been buried under mud. The other three were pulled out alive. “We are going to take firm action” to help the devastated areas,” Rousseff said. (CNN)

Brazilian authorities have been criticized for a lack of disaster planning, and for allowing people to build homes in areas known to become treacherous in the rainy season. They are under increasing pressure to show a strong response. Brazil is scheduled to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

Experts have gone to the area to assess which parts remain at risk of further landslides so that inhabitants can be evacuated. Among them is Professor Nelson Fernandes, a geologist at the Geoscience Institute at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He said both natural and human factors were behind the terrible destruction wrought when a month’s worth of rain fell in just eight hours. The mountainous area has a lot of rockey ground, impervious to water, which creates “avalanches of water” in the valleys, he told BBC. But rapid population growth in the area was also responsible, he said – with people building houses on steeply sloping areas and right next to rivers. He said it was a problem in many parts of the country, particularly at the base of the coastal Serra do Mar mountain range which runs along the coast of much of the country. “The risk is increasing each year because populations are getting bigger,” he said. “Today, almost every landslide will hit something.” (BBC)

The information in this article is a combination of works from CNN, BBC, and CBC.

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