Deadly mudflows in Brazil reflect neglect, climate change

RIA DE JANEIRA (AP) – Landslides that devastated Petropolis this week, demolished homes and tore apart families, damaged hillsides and hearts, killing at least 120 people and missing nearly as many.

And all of this was largely predictable – and to some extent preventable.

Rapid urbanization, poor planning, lack of funding for affordable housing – all this has affected this mountain city in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. Little has been done in response to repeated warnings about the risks of building on the hillside, researchers told the Associated Press, as well as current and former government officials.

And with evidence that climate change is causing more intense rainfall, the danger has only increased – not just for Petropolis, but elsewhere.

More than 1,500 people have died in similar landslides in recent decades in this part of the Serra do Mar ridge. In Petropolis alone, more than 400 people have died since 1981 as a result of severe storms.

Antonio Gera, a professor of geography at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has spent 30 years studying weather-related disasters in Petropolis. He visited dozens of places where homes and lives were engulfed by streams of dirt, and explored the root causes.

“Rain is a big villain, but the main reason is poor land use. There is a complete lack of planning, ”Hera said in a telephone interview.

The accidental spread of Petropolis took place recently. Located in the mountains about 40 miles from Rio de Janeiro and named after the former Brazilian emperor, Petropolis was one of the first planned cities in the country.

Earlier, settlers built majestic houses along its waterways. But in recent decades, the city’s prosperity has attracted newcomers from poor regions, and the population has grown to about 300,000. The slopes of the mountains are now covered with small houses, tightly packed together, built by people who are not fully aware of the danger. Many built without proper permits because they could not afford to do it elsewhere.

Many high-risk areas are even more vulnerable due to deforestation or insufficient drainage, Hera said. As time goes on, people forget about disasters and return to devastated areas, building houses on dangerous land.

For nearly two decades, Jara Valverde headed the local branch of the federal environmental regulator. In 2001, it launched the city’s first hydrogeological risk warning system by installing plastic bottles in settlements to collect precipitation. When they reached a certain level, sirens sounded.

There was no government funding for the program, so it attracted volunteers.

Between 2007 and 2010, Guerra and a team of civil engineers and geologists mapped risk areas in Petropolis and sent their findings to the city. In January of the following year, heavy rain caused landslides that claimed nearly 1,000 lives, 71 of them in Petropolis. It was considered the most terrible natural disaster in the history of Brazil.

The city recognized the problem. In 2017, authorities noted that 18% of the city – including about 20,000 families – are at high or very high risk. Another 7,000 also have to be relocated according to a plan developed by the city that called for the construction of affordable housing and the cessation of new construction in at-risk areas.

Hera, Valverde, NGOs and residents say little has been done to realize this vision.

In Petropolis there is little room for new, safe construction, and the removal of residents from existing homes is unpopular politically – there is often nowhere to relocate residents near their original homes. Even before the pandemic hit the local economy, Rio was struggling to recover from the devastating, three-year recession.

But the Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo, citing official data, reported that the Rio government had spent less than half of the money allocated to a program to prevent and respond to natural disasters.

The Rio Secretariat for Construction and Infrastructure said in an email to the AP that inspections of risk areas, housing policies and relocations are the responsibility of the city.

The city did not respond to repeated inquiries about how many families have been relocated since 2017 and what other measures have been taken to implement the plan.

The federal government is not offering assistance. “We cannot be safe from anything that could happen,” President Jair Bolsanara of Petropolis said on Friday, responding to widespread outrage.

The region is characterized by heavy rains, especially in the summer in the southern hemisphere, from December to March. But with climate change, the rains seem to be getting heavier, experts say.

Southeastern Brazil has been punished by heavy rains since the beginning of the year. More than 40 deaths were recorded between villages in Minas Gerais in early January and Sao Paulo later that month. It came after months of drought – the worst in Brazil in nine decades – when hydroelectric reservoirs in the southeast fell to a level that raised concerns about possible power rationing.

“They are all extreme weather events that happen very close to each other. Climate change is also increasing the frequency of events, and we are watching this closely, ”said Marcela Selucci, coordinator of the government’s National Center for Disaster Monitoring and Early Warning. “It’s not a single event, it’s a whole.”

On the eve of the last landslide, the center of Selucci sent a warning of “very high” danger to Petropolis, warning of rains that “could potentially have a major impact on the population.” The agency recommended that the authorities consider evacuation from risk areas.

The next day, in just three hours, 259 millimeters (10 inches) of rain fell – this, according to the center, the most since 1932.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Rio Gov. Claudio Castro insisted the flood was “completely unpredictable.” Whether destruction and death could have been avoided, he did not comment.

Eighteen of Petropolis ’20 danger sirens sounded ahead of deadly landslides on Tuesday, warning residents of impending danger, but the AP could find no evidence that officials called for an evacuation.

Some residents told the AP that they had received text messages from authorities warning of an impending thunderstorm. Others said they had not received any reports. And because most of the city sirens were concentrated downtown, several areas were excluded.

The city has not responded to numerous AP inquiries for comment.

Fernando Araujo, 46, said the government was ignoring his neighborhood with Villa Felipe for as long as he could remember.

“As a resident who has lived here for 46 years, I am sure that as soon as the sun rises and the weather stabilizes, they will not come here and will not pay attention to us. The people will clean up, rebuild, and someday it will happen again in the future. “

Valverde, a former environmental regulator who set up a risk warning system, said many cities in the region lack the political will to tackle the problem.

“They say they don’t care, but when it comes time to make decisions, to rent houses in risk areas, to prevent new construction … they end up giving in,” she said.

“They have to be responsible. If not, it will happen again and again. “

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AP journalist Diorle Rodriguez contributed to this report from Petropolis and Deborah Alvarez from Brazil.

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