Nova Friburgo, Brazil (AFP) Jan 19, 2011
Brazilian officials began Wednesday moving thousands of people out of at-risk areas near Rio in a flooding disaster that has already left at least 727 people dead.
Ten teams of civil defense and environment officials were evacuating residents in outlying areas of Nova Friburgo, the hardest-hit town, said their commander, Colonel Roberto Robadey.
"We are telling people in the risky houses they have to go," he told AFP.
Robadey said 6,000 people were living in at-risk areas before the disaster, adding that definitive figures were not available.
Reactions from inhabitants ranged from surprise to regret at being ordered to evacuate places that many of them have lived in their whole lives, but most signed documents accepting the move. The terror of what they experienced over the past week was evident.
"So far, people are cooperating, accepting it, because they are panicked after what happened. But if any resist, we will have to mount a tough operation to get them out," Robadey said.
The disaster that hit the Serrano mountain region on January 12 was considered the deadliest natural catastrophe on record in Brazil, according to media.
Seasonal rains, normally heavy anyway, suddenly intensified unimaginably because of a cold front that dumped a month's worth of water in a few hours.
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. Wealthy properties were also submerged.
Towns and villages hit by the flooding and mudslides are awaiting millions of dollars in government aid as civilian and military personnel fan out to cut-off communities, providing rescue and supplies.
Faced with the first big challenge of her mandate started January 1, President Dilma Rousseff has released $60 million of immediate aid.
The World Bank said Tuesday it would lend Brazil another $485 million for rebuilding and disaster prevention efforts, with the first tranche of $290 million expected to be approved within weeks.
Rio de Janeiro's state health and civil defense service gave the death toll Wednesday as 727.
It said 345 people died in Nova Friburgo, 298 in Teresopolis, 63 in Petropolis and 21 in the village of Sumidouro.
Around 14,000 people were being put up in shelters or staying with relatives after losing their homes or having to abandon at-risk areas.
The fatality count of the catastrophe far overshadowed contemporaneous floods in Australia, where more than 30 people have died; Sri Lanka, where at least 43 died; and the Philippines, which saw 53 victims.
In the wake of the mudslides, Brazil is accelerating a long-delayed project for a computerized disaster warning system amid criticism that the extent of the tragedy could have been minimized.
"The rain last week in Rio was forecast. Alerts were sent. But when the alerts arrived, the municipalities didn't have the structures to react," said Jose Eloi Guimaraes of the Geosciences Institute at the University of Brasilia.
The plan notably called for a network of 400 rain-measuring monitors and sirens in 61 communities in the Serrana region, as well as ensuring that emergency personnel had cellphones to pass on warnings.
The science and technology ministry, involved in the project, said the complex system would be partially functioning at the end of this year and fully operational in 2014.
According to the ministry, five million people in Brazil live in 500 identified areas at risk of a natural catastrophe.
earlier related report
Rio's state health and civil defense service, which gave the tally, also said around 14,000 people were homeless or unable to return to unstable areas.
The disaster, which struck Wednesday last week, is the worst of its type in Brazil's history.
The toll was likely to rise further in the days ahead as emergency crews backed by 700 military personnel used helicopters and four-wheel drives to access areas that have been cut off for days.
"I'm never going back there to live. Death will always be in that place," said Roberto Fabiano Augusto, a survivor rescued from the isolated village of Vale de Cuiaba.
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 told AFP after a helicopter brought him to the nearby town of Itaipava.
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 with layers of debris beneath. Houses in their path were torn apart, as though blasted 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 have been released immediately.
Brazilian media called it the worst mudslide disaster in the country's history, surpassing mudslides in a coastal town that killed 437 people in 1967.
Seasonal rains, normally heavy anyway, suddenly intensified unimaginably last week because of a cold front that dumped 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. Many wealthy properties were also swallowed up.
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 urged the local population to avoid drinking 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.
Ordinary Brazilians were rallying to help the devastated population, sending donations of food and clothing to the disaster zone.
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