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Friday, April 9

Brazil's 'Katrina' - corruption, government mismanagement might have played role in high death toll from mudslides in Rio and Niteroi slums

So right now the message is the same for citizens of every nation: What use is to yell, "The damn government!" while you're being swept out to sea?

I'll start by correcting my statement in yesterday's post that the torrential rains that fell on Rio de Janeiro starting Monday were "record." I took that from an AP report. From other reports (BBC, AFP) the rains were the heaviest in about a half century, which I suppose could still make them "record" but not to be confused with "unprecedented."

The same reports from the BBC (Monday-Tuesday) and AFP (today) carry quotes that suggest corruption and government mismanagement/neglect could have played a major role in the still-unfolding catastrophe in Rio de Janeiro state.

As an American who watched in horror in 2005 while Hurricane Katrina exposed the corruption and neglect at all levels of U.S. government that led to a high death toll in New Orleans, I'm not eager to cast stones at Brazil's government. However, information is emerging to suggest the Rio tragedy finds echoes and correspondences with the one that struck New Orleans. Consider (emphasis throughout mine):

BBC, April 5-6:
"The situation is chaos," Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo da Costa Paes said in a statement on Tuesday. [...] Mr Paes said the preparedness for heavy rainfall in Brazil's second-largest city -- which will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games -- was "less than zero."
In the same report, observations from BBC Correspondent Paulo Cabral in Rio de Janeiro:
The rain is not so intense but the risk of new landslides remains high, as the soil of the hillsides is extremely wet. Most of those who died were people in the hillside slums where waves of mud came down destroying everything in their way.

The topography in Rio exacerbates these types of problems. It's one of the most beautiful cities in the world because of the mountains in the middle of the town, but it can get nasty when it rains.

Ten years ago a census found 12,000 people lived in high-risk areas, but there have been new developments since then so the number is probably much higher.
AFP, April 9:
[...] Niteroi [a municipality neighboring the city of Rio] is the hardest hit with at least 107 dead, compared to 55 in Rio, according to the civil defense authorities.

Civil Defense officials said that at least 161 people had also been injured in the weather chaos of the past four days, and the state of Rio reported that 14,000 people have been forced to move due to the heavy rain.

How many people really were swept away in Morro do Bumba [shanty town] is unknown.

Firefighter chief Colonel Pedro Machado told AFP earlier Thursday that "based on the testimony of witnesses, some 200 people were buried under the rubble."

Nevertheless, the commander of the 12th military police battalion in Niteroi, Rui Franca, said, "It is impossible to make a rational estimate of the number of people buried because there is no relief map of the area."


An angry mob in the neighborhood near Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer smashed one of the trains that takes tourists up to the gigantic statue, upset over the death of three locals, the Agencia O Dia reported.

The crowd said the company that owns the tourist trains was responsible for diverting a sewage canal towards the shanty town four years ago that channeled much of the flood water over the past days. The company director rejected the charges.


The head of the Niteroi public services, Jose Mocarzel, said the Morro do Bumba shantytown had been built up over the past 25 years on an old landfill site and was particularly at risk.

A strong odor of methane lingered among the trash-strewn streets. [...]
This is not the first time this year that Rio de Janeiro state has been hit with heavy rains, severe flooding, and landslides. From an AFP report dated January 29:

SAO PAULO, Brazil - Two months of heavy rains have killed 64 people in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo and flooded several areas in its huge city of the same name, officials and media reported Thursday.

The near-constant precipitation has filled to capacity two of the six dams supplying the city, requiring the release of millions of gallons (litres) of water, according to Sao Paulo's sanitation authority.


Many of the fatalities were the result of mudslides or building collapses, according to the state civil defense service.

The deaths in Sao Paulo state added to scores of others in the neighboring state of Rio de Janeiro in late December and early January, including 28 killed on New Year's Day when a luxury beachside hotel was hit by a landslide.
So it's not as if federal, state and city officials didn't have warning that additional flooding would precipitate killer mudslides. While the weather events in January and this week can be considered unusual, from Paulo Cabral's report the authorities are well aware of the risks during heavy or prolonged rains in a state where large urban populations are perched on landfills and hillsides.

The Associated Press report I quoted from yesterday mentioned the issue of the government forcibly relocating residents of shanty towns who were most at risk from the mudslides. Clearly the issue is not new:
[...] when heavy rain falls on slopes crowded with poorly built shacks, nature itself can deal out death.

Almeira and other slum residents say they have nowhere else to go if they want jobs in Rio's richer areas.

"The government wants to forcefully remove the residents living in danger, and that is understandable," said Leandro Ribeiro, another slum resident. "But where are we supposed to go? Some people have been living here for 30 years. This is their home."

Mayor Eduardo Paes said he was taking a tougher stand on forced relocations. He announced that 1,500 families were going to be removed from their homes on Pleasure Hill [shanty town] and in Rocinha, one of Latin America's largest slums.

"I don't want to spend next summer sleepless, worrying if the rains are going to kill somebody," he told reporters, without saying when the relocations would occur.
The situation reminds me of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, which housed many low-income residents of the city, and was a known death trap in the event the levees didn't hold against hurricane flooding. The levees were breached because of Katrina and so a lot of people were drowned.

There were many things that could have been done to avert the tragedy in the Lower Ninth Ward; not one of them was done or even attempted. Corruption, complacency, and incompetence ruled. Ditto, I suspect, for the tragedy in Rio de Janeiro state.

I'm still not willing to speculate at this point that the many instances of extreme weather so far this year in many parts of the world represent a trend that can't be explained by El Niño. However, many of the weather events have been labeled "historic" or "record" in that nothing similar had occurred for anywhere from a quarter century to a century. El Niño occurs every five to seven years.

What is certain is that more and more people are densely packed into areas that are very vulnerable to extreme weather and seismic events. When you combine that factor with complacency, a cycle of violent weather, strapped government budgets, the usual run of corruption and neglect characterizing many municipal administrations, that's convergence.

So right now the message is the same for citizens of every nation: What use is to yell, "The damn government!" while you're being swept out to sea?

This realm is not Eden. That means if you insist in making your home in the jaws of death, whether the death be fire, flood, winds, or mud, you better practice evacuation drills. Hear?
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