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Brazil’s deadly landslides ushered by neglect, climate change

A man with a Bible stands amid the debris of homes destroyed by mudslides
A man with a Bible stands on the debris of homes destroyed by mudslides in Petropolis, Brazil, on Friday.
(Silvia Izquierdo / Associated Press)
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The landslides that devastated Petropolis this past week demolished houses and ripped families apart, scarred hillsides and hearts, left at least 136 dead and more than 200 missing.

And it was all largely predictable — and to some degree preventable.

Rapid urbanization, poor planning and lack of financing for subsidized housing all have afflicted this mountain city in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state. Repeated warnings about the risks of mountainside construction have gotten scarce response, researchers as well as current and former public servants told the Associated Press.

And with evidence mounting that climate change is causing more intense rainfall, the peril has only increased — for Petropolis and everywhere else.

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More than 1,500 people have died in similar landslides in recent decades in that portion of the Serra do Mar range. There have been more than 400 deaths from heavy storms in Petropolis alone since 1981.

Antônio Guerra, a geography professor in the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has studied weather-related catastrophes in Petropolis for almost 30 years. He has visited dozens of sites where houses and lives were swallowed by torrents of mud, and investigated the root causes.

“Rain is the great villain, but the main cause is poor land use. There’s a total lack of planning,” Guerra said in a phone interview.

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Petropolis’s haphazard sprawl is recent. Nestled in the mountains some 40 miles from Rio de Janeiro and named for a former Brazilian emperor, Petropolis was among the nation’s first planned cities.

Earlier settlers built stately homes along its waterways. But in recent decades the city’s prosperity has drawn newcomers from poorer regions and the population grew to about 300,000. Mountainsides are now covered with small homes packed tightly together, built by people who aren’t fully aware of the dangers. Many erect dwellings without proper permissions because they can’t afford to do so elsewhere.

Many high-risk areas are even more vulnerable due to deforestation or inadequate drainage, Guerra said. As time goes by, people forget disasters and return to devastated areas, building houses on unsafe ground.

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For nearly two decades, Yara Valverde led the local office of the federal environmental regulator. In 2001, she started the city’s first hydrogeological risk alert system, installing plastic bottles in communities to collect rainfall. When they reached a certain level, sirens blasted.

There was no public money allotted for the program, so she enlisted volunteers.

Between 2007 and 2010, Guerra and a team of civil engineers and geologists mapped risky areas in Petropolis and sent their findings to the city. The next January, heavy rain in the region set off landslides that claimed nearly 1,000 lives, 71 of them in Petropolis. It was considered Brazil’s worst-ever natural disaster.

The city has recognized the problem. In 2017, authorities noted that 18% of the city — about 20,000 households — was at high or very high risk. Yet another 7,000 would also need to be relocated, according to a plan devised by the city which called for construction of affordable housing units and a halt to new construction in at-risk areas.

Guerra, Valverde, nongovernmental organizations and residents say little has been done to advance that vision.

To be sure, there is little available space in Petropolis for new, safe construction, and removing residents from existing homes is unpopular politically — plus, there’s often nowhere to relocate those residents near their original homes. Even before the pandemic slammed the local economy, Rio state was struggling to recover from a crushing, three-year recession.

But the Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo, citing official data, reported that Rio’s state government spent less than half of the money earmarked for its disaster prevention and response program.

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Rio state’s construction and infrastructure secretariat said in an email to the AP that inspections of at–risk areas, housing policy and relocations are the city’s responsibility.

The city did not reply to repeated requests for information on how many families had been relocated since 2017 and what other measures had been undertaken to carry out the plan.

President Jair Bolsonaro tried to deflect the blame, saying the budget for preventive measures is limited. “A lot of times, we have no way to guard against everything that might happen,” he said Friday from Petropolis, responding to widespread outrage.

Heavy rains are typical in the region, especially during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, between December and March. With climate change, the rains appear to be getting heavier, experts say.

Southeastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains since the start of the year. More than 40 deaths were recorded between mudslides in Minas Gerais state in early January and Sao Paulo state later the same month. That followed months of drought — Brazil’s worst in nine decades — that saw hydroelectric reservoirs in the southeast fall to levels that led to worries about possible power rationing.

“They are all weather extremes, happening very close to one another. Climate change also acts to increase the frequency of events, and we are clearly observing this,” said Marcelo Seluchi, a coordinator at the government’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters. “It’s not about looking at a particular event, but the total.”

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On the eve of the latest landslide, Seluchi’s center sent out a “very high” risk alert for Petropolis, warning of rains with “a potential to cause a great impact on the population.” The agency recommended authorities consider evacuation of at-risk areas.

The following day, 10 inches of rain poured down in just three hours — by far the most in such a period since 1932, according to the center.

At a news conference Wednesday, Rio Gov. Claudio Castro insisted the deluge was “totally unpredictable.” He didn’t comment on whether the destruction and loss of life could have been avoided.

Eighteen of Petropolis’ 20 risk alert sirens sounded before Tuesday’s fatal landslides, warning residents of a looming danger, but the AP could find no evidence that officials called for evacuations.

Some residents told the AP they had received text messages from authorities, warning them about the coming storm. Others said they had received no notice at all. And with most of the city’s sirens concentrated in the center of town, several districts did not receive warnings.

The city didn’t respond to multiple requests from the AP for comment.

Fernando Araújo, 46, said the government has ignored his neighborhood of Vila Felipe for as long as he can remember.

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“As a resident living here for 46 years, I’m sure that as soon as the sun comes out and the weather stabilizes they won’t come here anymore and give attention to us. The people, on their own, will clean things up, rebuild, and sometime in the future this will happen again.”

Valverde, the former environmental regulator who set up the risk alert system, said many cities in the region lack the political will to face up to the problem.

“They say they care, but when the time comes to make decisions, to remove houses in risk zones, to prevent new construction ... they end up giving in,” she said.

“They have to be held accountable. If not, this will happen again and again.”

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