January 14, 2011
At least 511 people have been reported killed since Wednesday by mudslides and flooding in Brazil’s deadliest natural disaster in recent memory. Heavy precipitation over the past few days is now predicted to continue in the coming weeks, threatening further damage and hindering rescue efforts in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
The cities of Petropolis, Teresopolis and Nova Friburgo—all located in a mountainous region about 40 miles north of Rio de Janeiro—were the hardest hit as rain swelled rivers and swept away houses. With the death toll rising, authorities and experts have already begun assigning blame for what are perceived as inadequate rescue efforts and insufficient preparation for floods, which have become increasingly common in Brazil.
“There is carelessness at every level of government,” says Gil Castello Branco, secretary general of Contas Abertas, a group that monitors government spending. Although annual flooding is common in southeastern Brazil, the federal budget for disaster prevention and preparation measures dropped 18 percent in 2010, says Mr. Castello Branco.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral, however, cite poor oversight by municipal authorities who allow people to build houses on hillsides vulnerable to landslides. Mr. Cabral said 18,000 people lived in high risk areas in the city of Rio de Janeiro alone. Ms. Rousseff concurred, saying “mountains untouched by men dissolved. But we also saw areas in which illegal occupation caused damage to the health and lives of people…When there aren't housing policies, where are people who earn no more than twice the minimum wage going to live?"
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