Pain from torrent in Rio falls heavily on slums; at least 119 killed, 60 missing in mudslides

By Bradley Brooks, AP
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pain from torrent in Rio falls heavily on slums

RIO DE JANEIRO — Rodrigo de Almeira had dug for 15 hours through mud and debris, and he looked like it. Auburn mud covered his head, his ripped shirt, his torn jeans and his rubber sandals.

When asked Wednesday if he had been able to save anyone from the massive landslide in the slum where he lives, he silently shook his head. Of the 145 people confirmed dead from Rio’s heaviest rains on record, at least 18 died in his shantytown, Pleasure Hill.

“Right there at least 15 people I know died,” Almeira said, staring at a massive mound of mud and debris. Wood planks — remnants of the shacks engulfed by the landslide — poked through the mud as 30 rescue workers gingerly dug at it with picks and shovels, still looking for survivors.

“We found a guy alive this morning, so we had hope,” said Almeira, 28. “He didn’t make it, we were told he died on his way to the hospital.”

More death was certain for Rio.

Late Wednesday, an official with the state’s Civil Defense department said a huge mudslide smashed into a slum in Rio’s neighboring city of Niteroi, burying up to 40 homes. It was not immediately clear how many people were missing, but it was likely to be in the dozens.

Because of the continuing rains, steep hillsides and loose earth, officials said there had been few successful rescues. One man, Carlos Eduardo Silva dos Santos, 24, was pulled alive from under a concrete wall in western Rio. Firefighters said they had no count on how many people had been rescued.

The death toll could easily rise. An official with Rio’s fire department said at least 60 people were missing Wednesday afternoon — before the latest mudslide in Niteroi. And although the rain that poured down without interruption from Monday afternoon through Wednesday morning had finally begun to let up, more rain was expected through the weekend.

Nearly all the deaths occurred in landslides that engulfed the slums, yet another reminder that life in one of the world’s most famous playgrounds is much different for the poor than it is for the rich.

Residents of the slums often endure dangers such as the frequent shootouts between police and heavily armed drug gangs, and 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 and in Rochina, 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.

Rio was in chaos after the record rains fell this week. Trees and power lines were knocked down, enormous craters were seen in the streets, wastewater flowed down to the city’s white sand beaches and it was nearly impossible to get anywhere in the city of 6 million people.

In Rochina, officials said 16 inches (41 centimeters) of rain had fallen so far this month — three times the amount normally expected for all of April. Similar figures were seen across Rio’s metropolitan area.

The Rio state Civil Defense department said at least 11,000 people were forced from their homes by punishing rain that filled streets with raging torrents and ground Brazil’s second-biggest city to a halt the previous day.

“When the man upstairs sends us this much rain, there isn’t a thing that anyone can do,” Pedro Souza said as he tried to unclog a sewer drain with a broom outside an apartment building in Copacabana.

Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Sergio Cabral declared a three-day mourning period, and children were kept from schools for a second straight day.

The sun emerged in parts of Rio, but by late afternoon intermittent rains began, raising fears that more water would dislodge saturated ground and cause more slides, the mayor said.

Officials said potential mudslides threatened at least 10,000 houses in the city.

Some criminals took advantage of traffic jams caused by the flooding to rob stranded motorists, police reported.

Julia Freitas, a 25-year-old university student, told O Globo newspaper she was approached in her car by a group of men offering help.

“When I rolled down my window, one put a shard of glass to my neck and took my watch, cell phone and purse,” Freitas said.

Officials downplayed the possibility of similar downpours derailing World Cup matches in 2014 or the Olympics in 2016, noting that those events are not scheduled to be held during the nation’s rainy season.

Associated Press writers Stan Lehman and Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.

will not be displayed