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A week on, Brazil still counting dead from floods

A damaged car remains stuck in the mud at a touristic city point named Suspiro Square in central Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 18, 2011. A week after the deadliest mudslides Brazil has ever seen, killing nearly 700 people, the country Tuesday was still counting the dead and struggling to bring succor to survivors. The death toll kept climbing as emergency crews finally got past blocked roads to recover bodies from remote villages in the Serrana region near Rio de Janeiro. Photo courtesy AFP.

Brazil flood death toll keeps rising
Rio De Janeiro (UPI) Jan 17, 2011 - The death toll from floods and mudslides in Brazil kept rising Monday amid mounting concern for the health of survivors who faced fresh water shortages and disease from decomposing bodies in stagnant waters. Officials said about 700 inhabitants in isolated communities died in the past six days of flooding of poorly constructed neighborhoods -- now designated as potential death traps for survivors. Whole neighborhoods were washed away, leaving little time for inhabitants to take belongings as the flood waters rose. Rescue teams struggled to clear the bodies of victims and carcasses of animals in outlying areas cut off from roads and towns by the floodwaters.

Civilians and local rescue teams were aided by military personnel but progress was slow. Military helicopter rescue teams struggled to keep up with demand for emergency aid to many isolated communities. Rescue organizers said the flood emergency was the worst in Brazil's history but critics of the rescue effort cited instances of slow response. Although flooding and mudslides hit the state of Rio de Janeiro last Wednesday, President Dilma Rousseff declared a regional state of mourning over the weekend. Mudslides continued through Sunday and at least three people died in one incident in Itaipava in the state of Maranhao in northeastern Brazil.

State news agency Agencia Brasil is keeping the tally of the dead and injured and announcing updates in casualties and rescue results. In addition to about 700 reported deaths, at least 120 people are unaccounted for, Brazilian radio reported. Officials said regional governments worried about the impact of the flood and mudslides on tourism, a major source of revenue for most of Brazil. Authorities in Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis have been developing a joint strategy to keep the areas open for tourism. The mudslides north of Rio de Janeiro last week were caused by rains that poured the equivalent of a month's precipitation in just a few hours into the area.

Damage from the mudslides and flooding was made worse by the poor quality of housing, most of it illegal. Corruption, gang warfare and municipal inaction combined to make the temporary buildings lethal for their inhabitants. Although Brazil has positioned itself as the pre-eminent emergent economy in Latin America, the flood emergency once again exposed inherent weaknesses of poor governance and lax application of building regulations on hundreds of makeshift communities. The flood disaster was the first major challenge for Rousseff, who took over the presidency Jan. 1 from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Although Rousseff ordered cash subsidies for the area, she spent the weekend at her private residence in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
by Staff Writers
Itaipava, Brazil (AFP) Jan 18, 2011
A week after the deadliest mudslides in its history which killed nearly 700 people, Brazil Tuesday was still counting the dead and struggling to bring aid to survivors.

The death toll kept climbing as emergency crews finally managed to pass some blocked roads to recover bodies from remote villages in the Serrana region near Rio de Janeiro.

As of late Tuesday, a total of 680 dead had been tallied, according to officials. At least another 200 people were missing.

Seven hundred military personnel have been sent to the disaster zone, to help 800 emergency workers already there, fanning out by four-wheel-drive or helicopter to reach isolated communities, several of which were wiped off the map.

"I'm never going back there to live. Death will always be in that place," one survivor rescued from the village of Vale de Cuiaba, Roberto Fabiano Augusto, told AFP after he was brought by helicopter to the nearby town of Itaipava.

More than 50 people died in his village, he said. His family managed to escape, but his neighbors did not. "A lot of my childhood friends died. I don't want to go back there to live," he said.

The commander in charge of air rescues, Commander Luis Antonio Pinto Machado, said "there are still at least 10 areas cut off, which have populations from 500 to several thousand."

From the air, the landslides were easily seen: red scars on mountains beneath which layers of debris lay. Houses that were in their path looked as if they had been blasted apart by explosives.

Residents were seen pleading for help from the helicopters flying over their heads. When crews descended, they dropped off food and first-aid kits. But in many cases, locals wanted to stay where they were, to secure what was left of their homes.

The government has pledged $450 million in aid, $60 million of which has been released immediately.

Brazilian media called it the worst disaster of its type in the country's history, surpassing mudslides in a coastal town that killed 437 people in 1967.

The catastrophe struck in the early hours last Wednesday as families were sleeping.

Seasonal rains, normally heavy anyway, suddenly intensified unimaginably because of a cold front, dumping a month's worth of water in a few hours.

As the water slipped under the soil on the region's steep granite hillsides, the surface gave way, sending avalanches of mud, trees and big boulders crashing down into valley communities, wiping some of them out entirely and killing hundreds.

Houses illegally built on the hillsides -- many of them by poor people occupying public land -- were immediately destroyed, and added to the deadly mass speeding downhill.

The towns of Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis -- tourist destinations that used to be aristocratic getaways for 19th century Brazilian nobility -- were the worst hit.

Outlying villages were cut off as more than a dozen roads crumbled away or were covered with debris.

For the past few days, military helicopters have been sent out to those isolated areas, rescuing injured survivors and delivering desperately needed food, water and medicine.

Authorities have warned that epidemics are now a real danger.

Bodies are decomposing badly in the tropical heat, and bacteria and parasites normally present in the waterways are multiplying. Officials cautioned the local population to not drink contaminated runoff water.

Around 17,000 people were being put up in shelters or staying with relatives after losing their homes or having to abandon at-risk areas.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Saturday declared three days of national mourning. Rio de Janeiro state from Monday started observing a longer, week-long period of grieving.

Rousseff and state officials have said the death toll was so high because decades of weak municipal oversight in the region permitted the expansion of towns and villages into unstable areas.

But the mayor of Petropolis, Paulo Mastrangi, hit back, saying "there was no mechanism to be warned of a disaster of this magnitude."

He added local officials were now working on plans to stop people living in areas at risk from mudslides "to prevent future tragedies."

Ordinary Brazilians were also rallying to help the devastated population, sending donations of food and clothing to the disaster zone.




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Costs mount in savage Australia floods
Horsham, Australia (AFP) Jan 18, 2011
Floodwaters claimed the life of a young boy in southern Australia Tuesday as Canberra urged big business to dig deep for a recovery analysts warned could cost Aus$20 billion ($19.7 billion). Prime Minister Julia Gillard turned to corporate Australia for help in what is expected to be the nation's costliest ever natural disaster - a deluge that has lashed five of its seven states, killing mo ... read more

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