Brazil's Murderous Floods: A Disaster Foretold

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Shana Reis / Reuters

A neighborhood is partially destroyed by a landslide caused by heavy rains in Nova Friburgo, Brazil

Cars and bodies lay submerged Thursday, Jan. 13, in thick brown mud in Teresopolis and Nova Friburgo, the hilly towns above Rio de Janeiro that bore the brunt of the raging floods that killed more than 400 people in Brazil this week. Exceptionally heavy rains sent shanty houses sliding down denuded hillsides and rivers of muddy water washing through city streets, carrying homes, vehicles and businesses away with them. Rescue workers dug desperately through the strewn debris of fridges and cookers and children's toys in search of survivors, although their access to some of the worst-hit areas was hampered by roads having been washed away and communications being knocked out. Thousands have been left homeless, and with heavy rainfall continuing, the death toll is expected to rise.

"Lots of people are still walking about looking for bodies," says Carlos Eduardo Goncalves, a Teresopolis taxi driver. "All you can see is rocks, destruction, lots of people suffering. There are no more roads. Everything has gone, you have to walk over rocks.

The devastation of the flooding will be made more bitter for its victims by the predictability of the deluge. Brazil is a tropical nation with a heavy rainy season that often bursts the banks of rivers, and yet each year's flooding brings death and destruction that could be avoided with adequate planning and management.

"[Our] logic needs to be inverted," admits Humberto Vianna, a top civil-defense official. "We are going to prioritize prevention."

That assessment may not be wrong, but it will be seen by many as disingenuous coming from a government that just slashed its disaster-prevention and management budget 18%. New President Dilma Rousseff just took office on Jan. 1 and cannot be blamed for the cuts. But there is plenty of culpability to go around, says Gil Castello Branco, secretary general of Contas Abertas, a nonprofit that monitors government spending.

Local politicians in affected areas have consistently failed to provide the geological and related studies needed to secure disaster-prevention funding from the central government. Either they can't find qualified geologists, engineers and surveyors to map land and produce coherent budget proposals, or they can't afford to pay for them.

State governments have been equally remiss, while federal officials, when they do pay attention to the issue — money allocated to build a disaster-management center has laid untouched for two years, according to Castello Branco — have sometimes used disaster money for political purposes. More than half of last year's federal disaster-prevention funds went to Bahia state, where the minister in charge of distributing cash was running for governor, Castello Branco says.

In Brazil's political culture, politicians prefer to hand out money to fix problems rather than prevent them. Such basic flood-prevention measures as building and unblocking drains, trying to prevent soil erosion and keeping poor residents from building on cheap but vulnerable land can't compete with the attention generated by handing out wads of cash. "When these disasters occur, we know what will happen. The politician will survey the disaster area from a helicopter, then touch down and declare solidarity with the families and then announce a big rescue package so that he looks like the savior," Castello Branco says. "What they should be doing is going there when the sun shines to stand on the edge of a hill and announce that people living there will be removed from the high-risk area. But no one wants to do that."

Amid the horror of the deluge, state and federal governments sent tons of food, medicine and blankets, and Rousseff visited the stricken area after freeing 700 million reais ($418 million) in emergency aid. The President spent 45 minutes in Nova Friburgo and promised "firm measures." For many people, that will be too little and too late, and sadly typical of Brazil's failure to plan for predictable flooding.