Rains to Continue in Brazil as Floods Kill 538 People

Brazilian Rains
Rescue workers search for victims after heavy rains caused mudslides in a low-income neighbourhood in Teresopolis, some 100 km from downtown Rio de Janeiro. Photographer: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil’s most-deadly natural disaster may worsen as heavy rain in coming weeks threatens to cause more mudslides and hinder rescue efforts after at least 538 people died in Rio de Janeiro state.

Petropolis, Teresopolis and Nova Friburgo, cities in the mountainous area about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Rio, were the hardest hit this week as heavy rain sent earth and rocks rolling down hillside communities and swollen rivers swept away houses. A cold front stationed in the region and a weather system bringing humidity from the Amazon will continue to produce persistent rain, Brazil’s Agriculture Ministry said.

“Rainfall will continue over the next few weeks, and that will probably aggravate the situation, because the soil is totally soaked,” said Felipe Farias, a meteorologist at Brazil’s weather forecast and climatic studies center, or CPTEC. Rain began falling again in the area today, Farias said.

The region has already seen the largest rainfall since 1967, according to the government’s Inmet meteorology agency. Teresopolis, the largest city, where at least 228 people died, absorbed 259 millimeters (10.2 inches) of rain in the past 10 days, while the average rainfall for the month of January is 290 millimeters, according to Inmet.

More Rain

The floods in Rio are the world’s fourth-worst disaster involving floods and landslides over the past 12 months by the number of deaths, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, or CRED, a Brussels-based independent research institute that collaborates with the World Health Organization.

In Sao Paulo state, also in Brazil’s southeastern region, floods killed 23 people and left another 1,900 homeless, the state’s civil defense department said. Today, the Ipiranga River that runs through the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital, overflowed, flooding nearby streets. There were flooded areas in major roads all over the city, according to the civil defense department.

Teresopolis, home to 138,000 people, will need at least 600 million reais ($359 million) to rebuild infrastructure, homes and businesses, Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek said in a news conference today. He said President Dilma Rousseff agreed to inject federal funds in a subsidized housing program to help 2,500 homeless families.

“If we need more funds, the president said the government would provide them,” Sedlacek said.

The fruit and vegetable-producing city may get 80 to 100 millimeters more rain through Jan. 16, said Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE.

Food Shortages

The rains may lead to food shortages and higher prices of fruits, vegetables and dairy products as farmers have been unable deliver produce to the state capital because of road obstructions, Christino Aureo da Silva, agriculture secretary for the state of Rio de Janeiro, said in a phone interview. In Rio, supermarkets and restaurants reported shortages today.

The mountainous region surrounding the affected area supplies 40 percent to 60 percent of vegetables and dairy products for the city of Rio de Janeiro, Silva said.

Rains in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro’s so-called Green Belt are expected to continue through February, said Marco Antonio dos Santos, a meteorologist for Somar Meteorologia.

La Nina

Cold fronts tend to be stationed above Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for longer periods of time because of the La Nina meteorological event, he said.

Nova Friburgo, a city of 173,000 founded by German immigrants and occupied by a large Swiss community in the 1930s that became a textile industry hub, will need to be entirely rebuilt, Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral said at a news conference yesterday.

At least 246 died in the town, according to the state’s health and civil defense department. In Petropolis, a town named after Brazilian monarch Pedro II, who built his summer palace there in 1845, at least 41 people died.

Vale SA, the world’s largest iron-ore producer, is lending heavy machinery to the governments of the affected cities to help with rescue efforts, according to an e-mailed statement. The Rio de Janeiro-based company will also donate 2 reais for every 1 real donated by its employees to the victims of the floods, the company said.

Global Floods

Floods that killed 1,985 in Pakistan beginning in July last year was the worst tragedy involving rain in the past year, while two disasters in China ranked second and third, according to CRED.

In Zhouqu, in the province of Gansu, landslides killed 1,765 in August while 1,691 died in Fujian, in the province of Sichuan, in May.

Rousseff spoke in public for the first time since taking office Jan. 1 after surveying the rescue effort in Rio de Janeiro yesterday. She said decades of poor government planning that allowed poor people to build ramshackle homes on unsafe mountainsides was partly to blame for the tragedy.

“We saw regions where mountains fell apart,” Rousseff told reporters yesterday. “Housing in high-risk areas is the rule, not the exception” in Brazil. She authorized 700 million reais ($418 million) to fund relief and rescue work.

Cabral blamed city governments for allowing people to build homes in unsafe areas. The number of homes in Teresopolis jumped 30 percent to 53,057 since 2000, and the majority are low-income families who built their houses on hillside areas, the governor added.

Victims will be allowed to withdraw money from their government-run severance and disability accounts, known as FGTS, to rebuild their homes or relocate, Labor Minister Carlos Lupi said in Brasilia yesterday.

Rio’s state government will help as many as 6,000 families that lost houses pay rent, will set up two field hospitals in the area and is sending 7.3 metric tons of medication and other materials to assist victims, Cabral said.

-- With assistance from Iuri Dantas in Brasilia and Lucia Kassai in Sao Paulo. Editors: Harry Maurer, Joshua Goodman

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