Ten years after mudslide tragedy, Rio still working to repair damage

. Jan 12, 2021
mudslide tragedy Civil Defense officer during rescue operation following a landslide in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Jorge Hely Veiga/Shutterstock

Ten years ago, on the morning of January 12, Brazil awoke to catastrophic scenes in a region of the country previously only known for its bucolic landscapes. In the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro state, TV newscasts showed footage of devastating mudslides, drowning provincial tourist towns under a sea of brown sludge. Rescue teams from the Armed Forces searched frantically for survivors, often in vain.

Rainfall from the previous evening killed residents from seven cities in the region. According to the official death toll, 918 people lost their lives and 30,000 were displaced. However, even ten years on, the exact count is unclear. Entire families living in the region’s rural areas have never been seen again, with the Public Prosecution Service estimating that at least 99 people are still missing.

</p> <p>In the aftermath of what is considered the<a href=""> worst climate tragedy in Brazil&#8217;s history</a>, there was plenty of rebuilding work to be done. According to the Rio de Janeiro state government, a total of BRL 1 billion (USD 190 million) has been invested in works and infrastructure, with BRL 521 going toward housing and BRL 510 to containment works on slopes and drainage. However, part of this total was embezzled as part of a corruption scheme that led to the imprisonment of several public officials, including a local mayor.</p> <p>The state government has confirmed that new endeavors and initiatives should take place in the cities of Nova Friburgo, Teresópolis, Petrópolis, and Areal. Approximately BRL 500 million is to be invested in these municipalities. Rio de Janeiro administrators say that, in the first half of this year, construction will be concluded on a housing complex with 153 homes for those who were left destitute ten years ago.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="653" src="" alt="rio de janeiro mudslide" class="wp-image-54923" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Building damaged by a mudslide in the city of Nova Friburgo. Photo: Tânia Rêgo/ABr</figcaption></figure> <h2>Many are still homeless</h2> <p>In the wake of the tragedy, the federal and state government made a joint pledge to deliver 4,707 homes to aid the victims of the mudslides. According to the state administration, 4,219 have been concluded so far.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;We are finishing the infrastructure to deliver 153 housing units in the city of Areal. The infrastructure department is seeking funds from the federal government to build another 330 units in Petrópolis, 120 in São José do Vale do Rio Preto, and 128 in Sumidouro,” added the government, in a statement.</p> <p>“Many people lost everything, literally. They lost their relatives, homes, and personal documents. Many of them got sick. Being given an apartment is fundamental to at least stop receiving insufficient social rent benefits, which led people to go back to risk areas and live in fear of the rain,” says Marcelo Toyansk, who led the Victims Association in Teresópolis for five years.</p> <p>Mr. Toyansk believes that, given the size of the tragedy, not all deaths are officially accounted for and suffering was aggravated by the delays in resettlement, funding difficulties, and the lack of adequate psychological assistance.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The rain is not the villain in this story. It is a more complex structural problem. Having this population living in risk areas is the result of social and political chaos. Even after the tragedy there was tremendous neglect, causing even more suffering. Many victims are still living in these risk areas,” he adds.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Lack of sirens raises risk of new tragedy</h2> <p>Despite hefty investment, simple safety measures have yet to be adopted in Rio de Janeiro’s mountain towns. In several risk areas, there are no warning siren systems in place to alert to the risk of mudslides. Even towns such as Teresópolis — a popular<a href=""> winter tourist destination</a> and home to the Brazilian national football team’s training complex — have been left unprotected.&nbsp;</p> <p>Municipal and state governments acknowledge the shortfalls, but point out that the 2011 tragedy led to drastic changes in the strategy of Rio’s Civil Defense forces in preventing natural disasters. Efforts have been extended to the entire state of Rio de Janeiro, not just its mountainous region.</p> <p>Among the main prevention strategies introduced after the 2011 mudslides are the State Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alert Centers, which keep track of meteorological conditions throughout the state, issuing warnings when necessary. Seventy rain gauges have also been set up in 13 towns, bringing the state’s total network up to 360 instruments.</p> <p>A volunteer force was also enlisted and trained to act in the case of disasters. Currently, it has around 3,000 members. Every November 29, training programs are issued for the entire population to instruct them on how to avoid risks and respond in the case of climate tragedies.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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