In Brazil, a city traumatized by rainfall
More than a year after deadly floods and mudslides devastated the city of Nova Friburgo, Brazil, people are still in shock.
“People are traumatized,” Marie-Anne Pinheiro, a Swiss teacher and social anthropologist living in Nova Friburgo, said in a telephone interview. “When it rains, they are so terrified they stay at home and don’t go out anymore."
In January 2011, the rain came for days.
“It started between Christmas and New Year’s and it rained virtually every day and night,” said Virginia Vanstaveren, an American who has been living in the region for nine years, in an interview via Skype.
Heavy rainfall turned into floods and caused severe mudslides in different areas of the Serra do Mar Mountains. Nova Friburgo is in the midst of the mountains, about 80 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro. More than half of the town lies 3,000 feet or more above sea level. Mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes characterize the landscape.
Vanstaveren and her husband, Camillo Machnich, were lucky. Their home was safe from the mudslides. When Machnich built the house, he included a retaining wall to secure the house from being washed away.
But such structures are not common in Brazil. The couple's maid, Lucia, and her daughter lost their houses. Lucia’s daughter was seriously injured, Vanstaveren said.
Almost 900 people died in the floods, the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction reported. Thousands of people lost their homes. Brazil is third on the organization's list of countries with the deadliest catastrophes of 2011, after Japan and the Philippines.
Brazil experiences regular periods of heavy rainfall from December to March. The natural process of weathering, which is the breaking down of soils and rocks by water, temperatures, flora and fauna, increases the risk of mudslides. This is accelerated in the hot and humid tropical climate in Brazil, said Luci Hidalgo Nunes, a climatologist at the University of Campinas in the state of Sao Paulo, in a Skype interview.
“I would like to say that concentrated rain falls alone trigger these disasters but the real cause is the way in which society is established in the area," Nunes said.
Civilization changes the ways of the waters and alters the environment. This increases the risk of mudslides and makes living there dangerous, Nunes said. The only solution is to avoid inhabiting those areas.
“More or less the same happens in places like Los Angeles or Tokyo, which are in earthquake areas," Nunes said. "People prefer to believe that nothing will happen to them.”
In Brazil, many poor people build houses in dangerous areas, like on hillsides, often without permission from the government.
“There is legislation, but the problem is to put it in force," Nunes said. "Some municipalities install facilities like telephone connections or access to cable TV in these areas.”
The 2011 floods affected both the poor and the rich.
Pinheiro said many, especially the educated, moved out of the city after the disaster. In the future, this could lead to a shortage of professionals, like doctors. But people who aren't as financially independent don’t have the choice to leave.
“The land has been in their families for 100 years," Vanstaveren said. "They can’t afford to go anywhere else. They can’t sell their property. Where would they go?”
Solving the problems on a governmental level is complicated. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world. It is divided into 26 states and one federal district. Similar to the states in the United States, they have their own economies, politics and laws.
“Of course there are more things that could be done, but the government has done all the things it could in the year since the catastrophe,” Mariza Mendes, head of the Press Office of the Brazilian Red Cross, said in a phone interview.
Nova Friburgo now has an alert system. Vanstaveren said that during the heavy rain in January of this year, she saw bright orange trucks with speakers on top.
“They were standing in front of City Hall, not moving," she said. "I don’t see that the measures have been effective.”
The alert system isn't effective because no one knows what to do when the alerts are sounded, Rodrigo Aleixo, who has been living in Nova Friburgo for three years, said via Skype. People are outraged and frustrated by how little has been done since the disaster, he said.
Some bridges have been painted over without being repaired, Pinheiro said. Sewer systems haven't been cleaned.
“During a thunderstorm in October, the lower city center was under water,” she said.
The government is paying to build new homes, but like those destroyed in the flood, the new buildings don't have retaining walls, Vanstaveren said.
Meanwhile, people are struggling emotionally, Pinheiro said. She said she knows people who take antidepressants. During the anniversary of the mudslides, she said she went to Switzerland to escape the town's depressed atmosphere and the risk of another devastating flood.
Aleixo said he fell in love with the city's people and way of life but now living there is difficult.
“It’s very sad to stay here but I got attached to the city," he said.