By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Last week’s flooding wreaked havoc in Rio with the heaviest rains in fifty years bringing the city to a standstill on Tuesday and Wednesday. With the death toll now estimated at around 250 people following a huge landslide in Morro do Bumba, the Governor Sergio Cabral and Mayor Eduardo Paes are beginning the difficult process of relocating families and demolishing houses considered to still be in areas of risk.
Around 275mm of rain fell in some areas of Rio State in a 24 hour period from late afternoon on Monday as a large cold front sat over the city, bringing strong winds and moist air from the South Atlantic.
As the death toll increased hourly the city saw its resources stretched to the limit and terrified residents sought to salvage what they could from houses teetering on the edge of collapse. While the hillside favelas saw the worst loss of life, several main roads including Avenida Niemayer linking Zona Sul to Barra and Tunel Rebouças were completely closed bringing traffic to a halt.
Towards the end of the week the effects were felt on the coastline too, as waves of up to five meters lashed Copacabana, closing the coastal road on Thursday night, whilst on Sunday the council closed the Corcovado tram up to the Cristo Redentor statue, Rio’s most iconic symbol, declaring it unsafe.
As the scale of the flooding became apparent in the early hours of last Tuesday morning, the Mayor declared a state of emergency and urged people to stay at home. What traffic there remained on the roads included hundreds who had been stranded with their cars either in tunnels or between impassable sections, with some motorists abandoning their vehicles whilst others bedded down for the night.
On Monday April 12th, the difficult process began to re-house some 4,000 people from several favelas including; Communidade dos Prazeres, Sao Joao Batista, and Rocinha, with the families set to receive R$400 per month towards housing costs.
In an interview with Agencia Brasil, Mayor Eduardo Paes said, “They will be able to choose accommodation of the value of their previous house, and the Prefeitura will make the funds available to them,” before adding, “they will be re-housed with dignity, but they will be re-housed.”
Approximately 4,000 families have been left homeless by the landslides, while a classification process is underway to assess which areas remain in danger and will be targeted for demolition.
Underlining the danger of some homes built precariously on the hillsides, the greatest single tragedy during the last week occurred in Morro do Urubu, built on an old landfill site in Niteroi. The community suffered a large landslide burying some 150 people under the mud including entire families trapped under the rubble of their own houses.
Upon visiting the area Governor Sergio Cabral was booed by locals and survivors apparently looking for somebody to blame for the tragedy, while the 300 workers trying to recover bodies had their work made even more difficult by the unstable earth underneath and continuing rains.
Several aid programs are underway with donations of clothing and medicines to the worst hit areas. Along with USAID, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Shannon has promised US$50,000 to help the relief effort, describing the donation as an act of empathy and solidarity with the people of Rio de Janeiro. Walmart has also stepped in to help the victims, pledging 50 tonnes of food, hygiene kits and cleaning equipment.