Brazil’s Largest Climatologic Disaster

As my readers might know, there has been a landslide due to heavy rainfall in the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro. I have not the intention to write an emotional story about this tragedy that kept the attention of the Brazilian people for some weeks. As Brazil didn’t apply for foreign aid, I haven’t seen much news covering of the event in the world press, but that’s nothing new. The west is the west and Brazil is far away. Although the tragedy is sadly ranking the 8th largest landslide in world’s history, the world is ignorant of what happened.

So I want to spend some words as the results of the heavy rain fall are the worst in Brazilian history. Just some facts and figures and a photo series. The journal on-line IG published a photo series of Nova Friburgo taken from the same spots before and after the tragedy. Clearly can be seen how the streets are covered by mud, debris and water in this highland town which recorded more than 200 deaths. The pictures before are Google street views, the ones after the tragedy are taken by various photographers.

Since the 21th of January the tragedy in the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro (Serrana do Rio) equals the greatest climatologic disaster in the history of the country, as the official count reached the 785 deaths, the same number of flood victims in Rio in 1967, according to UNO rankings. The number tends to increase further, and is already over the 800, as the Public Ministry of Rio estimates that there are still some 400 people missing in the six municipalities devastated by the heavy rains of 12 January. More than 20 thousand people are homeless in the region hit by the landslide.

Despite the large amount of water that came down from the hills and the flooding of rivers, Brazilian specialists and the UNO classify the event as a landslide. In the evaluation of scholars, much of the destruction and the deaths were caused by avalanches of soil and debris, technically known as mud racing.

The phenomenon is rare, as it depends on a combination of factors to occur. In the case of Rio’s highland region, they were all present. The hills are steep, which favours the slip of land. Moreover, it takes a great amount of rain concentrated in a short time. That’s what happened. According to data from the Instituto Estadual do Ambiente (Inea = State Environmental Institute), the climatic stations located in the core of the storm recorded 249 and 297 mm of rain in 24 hours – starting 20.00 hours on January 11. According to the president of INEA, Marilene Ramos, a storm of this intensity is probably to occur only every 350 years.

But there is more. One of the reasons that the dead toll is higher than ever, is that the region has a large number of informal, or if you like to say ‘illegal’ houses. With most of its buildings and homes stuck in the hills, the town of Nova Friburgo has about 50,000 of its 83,000 properties illegally built (60% of the total). The estimate comes from the Municipal Secretariat of Environment, which has only four inspectors to detect irregularities. Without complying with the law, the owners built “puxadinhos” or unlicensed works erected in formal and informal areas of the town, which certainly have contributed to the extent of the tragedy of last week.

It is like building without regulations in an earthquake area like San Francisco. The authorities could have known the risks and the consequences. They failed miserably. In the south of Brazil, each year we see heavy rainfalls and landslides. With all the elements (steep hills, heavy rains, dubiously built houses, failing government) in favour of a landslide, you could wait for it to happen. Look at São Paulo where it happens year after year at a smaller scale, without the state government doing anything. Till the moment it is a real landslide of course.

Rua General Osório, Nova Friburgo - left Google Street View, right photo Urbano Erbista

Praça das Colônias - Teatro Municipal in Suspiro - left Googçe Street View, right photo Urbano Erbista

Rua Luiz Spinelle centro de Nova Friburgo - left Google Street View, right photo Urbano Erbista

Av Comandante Bittencourt com Rua José Nahuma Bechara, Nova Friburgo - left Google Street View, right photo Urbano Erbista

Rua Eugênio Thurler, centre Nova Friburgo - left Google Street View, right photo Urbano Erbista

The announcement of the promise of the federal government to take the proper measurements for the future, is the one and only positive result of this tragedy. For more than 800 people and more than 20,000 homeless the promises are too late. And for the future? Wait and see.