NOVA FRIBURGO, Brazil – When he heard the house belonging to one of his brothers had been destroyed by a landslide on Jan. 12, Isaac da Silva and his four siblings went to the scene, where they repeatedly attempted to flag down rescue helicopters flying overhead.
But they were unable to get help in their attempt to find life under the rubble.
They started digging – and all they found was death.
Isaac and his siblings removed the muddied, lifeless bodies of their brother, his wife and the couple’s two girls and took them to a nearby school so they could receive a proper burial after authorities transported the corpses to the Institute for Forensic Medicine (IML).
“They improvised a bridge and evacuated us by tying ropes around our waists. They rescued my baby first.”
“We heard that there were so many corpses, they were throwing them into mass graves,” said Silva, a 22-year-old farmer. “I couldn’t let that happen to my brother. He was a person, not an animal. He worked hard and led an honest life.”
On Jan. 15 – three days after heavy rains caused mudslides and flooding in the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro – the Silva family finally laid their loved ones to rest at the local cemetery in Nova Friburgo, one of the cities hardest hit by the tragedy.
But other victims weren’t given a ceremony to mark their passing, as body after body kept arriving as the cemetery while the Silvas were burying their family members.
So far, 640 deaths have been attributed to the worst catastrophe in the nation’s history, according to Rio de Janeiro’s Secretariat of Health and Civil Defense.
The landslides that struck the region on the morning of Jan. 12 were deadlier than the 1967 landslides in Caraguatatuba, in the state of São Paulo, which resulted in 436 deaths.
The death toll also is expected to grow, as rescue teams continue to pull bodies from the earth.
The makeshift IML in downtown Nova Friburgo offered three alternatives for people seeking to identify their loved ones: a list with the names of the victims who already had been identified, a viewing of the deceased at the IML and a collection of photographs taken of the dead who had yet to be identified.
Nova Friburgo was home to the highest number of deaths, 294, followed by Teresópolis (271), Petrópolis (56) and Sumidouro (19).
The number of evacuees has reached 7,780, and 6,050 people have been rendered homeless.
Devastation in Nova Friburgo
Much like the other cities that have been hardest hit by the rains, Nova Friburgo appears to have been through a war.
Traces of destruction can be seen everywhere.
Streets are filled with mud.
The marks on the walls of homes and buildings show how high the devastating waters reached.
Sirens are the most common sound, as ambulances, police cars and vehicles carrying donated supplies try to make their way amid the chaos of traffic jams.
Areas where landslides occurred have been declared off-limits to the public.
Businesses remain closed – except for a few drugstores and supermarkets.
Some areas are without water, but electricity has been restored throughout the region, ending three days of darkness.
Shared suffering in the shelters
The homeless have gathered in six, makeshift shelters.
“Nine people in my family died: my mother, my brother, my nieces and uncles,” said Tais Coimbra da Silva, 21. “So far, they’ve only found one body.”
Tais, who is seven months pregnant, was forced from her home, which was condemned because it wasn’t structurally safe, according to officials. At the shelter with her husband, her three -year-old daughter and several family members, Tais fears for the future.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t know,” she said.
“I also lost nine family members, including uncles and cousins,” said Rita de Cássia da Silva Freitas Freiman, 28, joined in the shelter by her husband and 10-year-old daughter. “My house was condemned, but it hasn’t collapsed.”
In the same shelter, Adriana Corbiseiro Figueiredo, 25, expressed gratitude.
She thanked the officers from the Military Police’s Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) for having helped her escape on Jan. 14 with her husband and four children – the youngest being a month old.
“We had no way to get out and there was a risk of more landslides,” Figueiredo said.
Volunteers work around the clock
In the midst of the suffering, countless examples of solidarity abound.
Donations of clothing, food, toiletries and water, continually arrive at the shelters.
Armies of volunteers work around the clock, treating the injured, helping those in the shelters, cleaning streets and carrying coffins that arrive at the cemetery.
“How are you going to relax at home when others have been left outside, your neighbors, your city literally destroyed?” asked artisan Rita de Cássia Vital Guerra, 42, who volunteers in the shelters. “I can’t go to sleep at night.”
But hidden from view, Rita doesn’t hold back her tears.
“I can’t do it in front of them,” she said, referring to the displaced. “They’ve already suffered so much.”
Brazilian government has pledged US$80 million in relief aid to the region
Mobile telephone service and a portion of landline service also have been restored in Nova Friburgo, said Rio’s Lieutenant Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão.
Pezão guaranteed the Rio state government is doing everything in its power to bring aid to isolated areas.
“There’s no lack of help from the federal and state governments,” he said. “Sometimes what stands in the way of reaching an area is the weather, which has taken a turn for the worse. We have the men and the equipment. But we have to take these precautions so that we don’t risk the lives of the pilots and the soldiers.”
On Jan. 15, rains once again fell on Nova Friburgo.
With support from the federal government, roughly 400 pieces of equipment (helicopters, bulldozers, excavators, trucks and ambulances) were sent to the affected cities, as well as a large contingent of professionals from a variety of fields – firefighters alone accounted for 858, according Rio de Janeiro’s state government.
The Defense Ministry sent 586 soldiers from the army, navy and air force, and the National Security Force assigned 225 agents to Rio’s mountainous region.
Three field hospitals were established – by the state government in Nova Friburgo and Teresópolis, and another by the navy in Nova Friburgo.
On Jan. 16, the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) also began setting up a field hospital in Itaipava in the municipality of Petrópolis.
“We helped out during the earthquake in Chile, but I think people here are more frightened and psychologically desperate than they were there,” said Dr. Carlos Mesquita, the commander of the Nova Friburgo field hospital.
The majority of victims are suffering from trauma, Mesquita said.
From Jan. 13 to the early hours of Jan. 14, 186 cases were treated at the hospital, which is staffed with 53 health professionals.
The federal government pledged R$100 million (US$59.3 million) to the region, plus R$35 million (US$20.7 million) to cover the costs of rent for 5,000 families.
The payment of social program Bolsa Família benefits for the months of January and February also should help victims in Nova Friburgo, Petrópolis and Teresópolis. The government will provide Social Security payments in advance to the elderly and disabled.
Disaster caused by unregulated development
Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sérgio Cabral attributed the catastrophe to irresponsible and unregulated development in high-risk areas.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was a mayor here who celebrated the creation of ownership rights, much like in other regions. But when you do that in a hilly, mountainous region, it’s different,” he said in statement on Jan. 14.
Urban land legislation is the responsibility of the municipalities, Cabral said. He added granting ownership rights without consideration for safety is common, not only in the mountainous region but also in many municipalities throughout the state of Rio and nationwide.
Three factors led to the tragedy: the area’s geological makeup, human settlement and the rains, said Maurício Ehrlich, a professor of geotechnical studies at the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Engineering Graduate Studies and Research Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (COPPE/UFRJ).
“The tendency with mountains is the formation of a thick layer of soil, which becomes easily saturated with rain, increasing the weight [of mountains] and triggering landslides,” he said.
The rains in the region form a microclimate. The rainclouds are trapped by the mountains and the precipitation is heavier in certain areas, Ehrlich said.
Unregulated development – intensified by the migration of workers seeking opportunities with local companies – also impacts the land’s geography and climate, making the area more susceptible to disaster, Ehrlich said.
“These areas have very little space, and people wind up settling in the mountains,” he said. “There were landslides in the past, but the consequences weren’t as severe, because there weren’t people living in close proximity.”
During his visit to Itaipava, Cabral said unregulated development also was being carried out by the rich, as is evident from the presence of luxurious inns and mansions.
Businessman Erick Connolly de Carvalho, from Icatu Holding, lost 11 family members who were staying in the family’s house in Itaipava.
On Jan. 12, hours before the rains, Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) sent an announcement to the National Secretariat of Civil Defense (SEDEC) warning of the existence of “meteorological conditions conducive to moderate or strong rains.”
At 1:56 p.m. on that same day, SEDEC relayed the information to Rio de Janeiro’s Secretariat of Health and Civil Defense, the General Command of the state’s Fire Department and the Special Secretariat for Public Order. The warning also was sent by email to authorities in all of the municipalities.
But the population was not informed, victims said.
“The city of Rio has a more organized alert system, [but] the municipalities don’t have anything of the sort,” Ehrlich said. “They had no way of communicating the warning in a timely fashion.”
As she waited in line on Jan. 15 at the IML to identify the bodies of her sister and her 16-year-old nephew, Marta Pedreti couldn’t hide the disgust.
“They say that city hall, the mayor, the government, the presidency, everybody already knew that this would happen. We were the only ones who didn’t know,” she said. “They could have found a place for everyone before this happened.”
Laerte Calil de Freitas, the mayor of the city of Areal, looked out for his residents.
On Jan. 13 Freitas recorded an alert, warning residents to seek shelter. The message was broadcast by a sound truck that drove throughout the city.
When the earth stopped moving, about 800 of his city’s residents were homeless.
But they were all alive.