Disaster in Teresópolis, Brazil

Remember that old friend of mine, now living in Brazil, that I mentioned getting in touch with again? Well, he told me about some flooding problems they’d been having down there in one of his emails. Curious, I checked the news and even did a little searching online, but couldn’t really find much of any significance. So I asked him to provide me with more details, and perhaps a link or two. He promised to do so in an email I got on February 6th.

Well he finally got back to me yesterday morning (February 21st), and because I’ve been leaving my PC off more than usual lately, I didn’t see it until about 5am today. Here is his email in its entirety:

Dear Friends and Family – I´m sending this to the few English-speaking emails I still have. We´re still alive and well here in Teresópolis. During the night between the 11th and 12th of February, our part of Brazil got the heaviest downpour of rain we´ve ever heard of around here. Wherever that much water would have fallen, it would have caused massive damage. But this time, it fell in rural areas in 6 counties (including ours) and in the downtown area of only 1 town, Nova Friburgo. The damage it did was pretty phenomenal, in the bad sense of the word – about a thousand people dead, several thousand homeless, a big portion of the agricultural lands made useless, a total lack of transport (roads and bridges), communication and electricity, isolating residents and making it impossible to commercialize the crops that weren´t destroyed. The morgues were over-crowded, the army was called in to avoid looting and to help dig out the dead, the Red Cross came in to help organize the donations of food and clothing. It was all a general fiasco, nobody is ever prepared anywhere for such damage and so much urgent need. And the aftermath is also a fiasco – so many donations that anybody who can stand in line is getting clothes, which cuts down on sales for local stores, who are going broke. The local government is making people move out of areas where there´s still a risk of landslides in the future, but they don´t have housing projects made for these people to move into, so they provide a “social rent” payment and tell the poor to look for homes to rent within the value provided, which is not much – plus, the shark slum-lords have raised the price of rent because of the huge demand, leaving lots of people having to live in churches and schools till they find a place of their own. Pretty nasty business.

Our side of Teresópolis (south), which is generally considered a pretty high-risk area in the rainy season (our summer, your winter), was left untouched, to the amazement of everybody. Usually, the rain comes in from the south or southeast, off the ocean, and hits us, but this time it came in from the northwest, evaporated in the warm Amazon and condensing on the north side of our colder mountains. Apparently, this is all the result of global warming, caused by our collective stupidity in the mismanagement of our planet. Even without our interference in the climate and weather through air pollution, this sort of extreme event is estimated to happen about every 350 years, according to some local scientists. It´s hard to say, but most are saying that it won´t take that long to happen again. I´m preparing an “emergency evacuation kit” of sorts, a few bags and backpacks with camping gear, lightweight food, water filters, medical gear, tools, our documents and some money, etc., in case we need to get out quick.

For the last few months, I´ve been coordinating a commission to organize the sanitation works in our county, including the public water supply, the sewage system (nonexistent so far), the garbage collection and disposal, and the drainage systems. It´s a part of our local Environmental Council. I also work in a Hidrographic Basin Committee, a sort of river council, that´s trying to protect and/or recover local water systems in nature, and a few other such groups. It´s strictly voluntary work, in “partnership” with the local government at several levels, who are the ones officially responsible for these services. The federal government of our ex-President Lula stimulated what they call “participative democracy”, that is, the people deciding the priorities and the government executing the actions chosen by the people. It´s real pretty on paper, but hard to materialize – this country had a dictatorship during the years from the 30´s to the end of the 70´s, so they don´t have a culture of the people being active in decision-making or in administering their own future. The government is made up of “lifers”, career civil servants who just want to get through their 25-30 years of work with the least amount of effort and retire on a fat pension, and the elected officials and their gangs of hangers-on, who know they generally have 4 years in power and use it to rob as much as they can – sound familiar to anybody? Neither of these groups is too happy with the idea of having civilians looking over their shoulders or telling them what to do, so there´s big resistance against popular participation. And when it comes down to it, most of us civilians are really not qualified to make decisions about environmental issues – but then neither are the politicians or scientists. But we´re trying, and there are a few government officials who care about the country as much as their own bank accounts, so maybe one day…

Anyway, these commissions are studying everything available about water in our area (rainfall and how it varies with the lack or presence of forests and other climatic factors, how much rain goes into the soil or stays on top to fill – and over-fill – rivers or evaporates, how much and what types of pollution go into that water, how much is used by humans and our activities and in what ways, how much we have to leave in the rivers to keep nature “alive”, etc.) with the intention of trying to find ways of living with nature as a friend instead of as an enemy or a victim of human civilization. Our ignorance and our old habits are unconsciously against this new vision becoming successful, and there are a lot of economic interests that are very consciously against this vision. Our ideals are long-term, and in conflict with the short-term view of so many people of “how much money can I make before I die by keeping things as they are”. I don´t know if our mental stagnation will allow us the long-term time span we need to create a more stable future.

It isn´t likely that we´ll be able to avoid disasters like this one in the future, we´ve already caused so much damage to whatever environmental stability our world has (and I would say that´s never been much – our world is dynamic, things are always shifting, there are always natural disasters happening somewhere, but I believe that we´ve created conditions that increase their size and frequency). Maybe we can perfect early warning systems to help evacuate target areas before the damage kills, and response programs to take in fugitives of disasters. Maybe we´ll just have to learn to live with the risks and try to keep down the collective fear of dying. Or maybe somebody will come up with a philosophy or technique that takes away our fear of death – not likely, as our physical instincts tend to dominate our emotions and reactions, and the physical, mortal part of us has a pretty big terror of ending its present form and getting recycled in nature. All of us, even with our beliefs about what comes after death, suffer from this instinctive fear. If we didn´t, maybe we wouldn´t have reached our present situation – but we all want to live as long as possible, and this together with our second major instinct, to reproduce more of our kind, have caused an enormously excessive population. Together with our 3rd major instinct, for each one to accumulate as much material as possible so we can survive and have comfort, and the producer/consumer system that exploits that instinct, we have become enemies of nature, taking out way too much from her resources and giving back damage and pollution to the point where we alter climatic conditions worldwide. What a fix we´re in! How dumb we are!

Anyway, I wasn´t going to get all philosophical, this was supposed to be just a disaster report. Sorry if I bored anybody or talked/wrote too much, as I tend to do. Love to all, David (that´s Mike, to my family).

After reading this new email, I was again surprised that I’d seen nothing about this on the news. At least I did find some things on Google this time, even a few from the same day of the email, though they were mostly over a month old. The following video is from January 13th. I’ve also included the report that was attached to it.

http://timesofearth.com/Worldnews/?NT… At least 500 people have been killed and many more are feared dead after floods and landslides devastated towns and villages in a mountainous area near Rio de Janeiro.

The mayor of of the town of Teresopolis, where hundreds of people are believed to have been buried under the rubble of their homes after the equivalent of a month’s rain fell in less than 24 hours, said that the death toll would rise as emergency workers reach outlying communities.

“The death toll is going to climb a lot. There are a lot of people buried who can’t get help because rescue teams can’t get there,” Jorge Mario said on Thursday.

“There are three or four neighbourhoods that were totally destroyed in rural areas. There are hardly any houses standing there and all the roads and bridges are destroyed.”

Television images of the three towns hit by the torrents of water and mud showed emergency workers going through the ruins of collapsed homes in a search for survivors, but often finding only bodies.

Survivors recounted the horrors of watching homes swept away by walls of earth and water and of frantic efforts to dig with bare hands to reach trapped neighbours.

“We were like zombies, covered in mud, in the dark, digging and digging,” Geisa Carvalho, a local resident, told The Associated Press news agency.

Geisa and her mother Vania Ramos were awoken by a loud rumble as tons of earth slid down a sheer rock face onto their neighbourhood.

“I don’t even have the words to describe what I’ve seen,” Ramos said. “A lot of our friends are dead or missing. There are people we may never find.”

More than 13,500 people have been left homeless ater the surging waters toppled their houses.

Residents said they had no food, water or medication, and many made the long walk to the main area of Teresopolis to get help.
The effect on other remote communities is still to be established as destroyed roads have made it impossible for rescue operations to reach them.

The government said it was sending 210 troops from the National Public Security Force, including officials to help identify bodies.

Two navy helicopters were assisting rescue operations and the navy was also sending a mobile field hospital to the area.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, called the situation a tragedy after flying over the scene.

“Housing in areas of risk is the rule in Brazil rather than the exception,” she said after visiting Nova Friburgo, where much of the damage was done to homes built precariously at the base of steep hills.

“When there aren’t housing policies, where are people who earn no more than twice the minimum wage going to live?”

Rouseff signed a measure on Wednesday sending $461m to towns in Rio and Sao Paulo states that were damaged during the rains. The money will go towards repairing infrastructure and preventing future disasters.

Heavy rains, common during Brazil’s summer wet season, were intensified this week by a cold front which doubled the usual precipitation.

I want ice water.

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