Saturday, January 15, 2011

Brazil mudslides bring anger in their wake as government comes under fire

Survivors of one of the country's worst disasters, which has claimed more than 500 lives, are still awaiting aid     

Tom Phillips and agencies, Saturday 15 January 2011

In the devastated countryside around Rio de Janeiro, the anger is growing. Late on Friday, many survivors of the floods and mudslides that have killed more than 500 people over the past week were still begging officials for aid.

Four nights of torrential rain have brought tragedy to these rural communities, and the authorities' response has sometimes been lumbering. In Teresópolis, a hilltop city 60 miles north of Rio, criticism is mounting of the government's efforts to rescue victims still stranded on remote hillsides and to find the bodies of the dead.

"The volunteers are doing a great job, the government are doing nothing," said Fernando Pfister, 31, who lost four children – two boys and two girls. "They won't even let us back in to search for the dead ourselves."

At the town's gymnasium, now home to hundreds of homeless families, he vented his anger at Brazil's recently elected president: "I wish I had never voted for Dilma Rousseff."

His wife, Veronica Dutra de Paiva, 29, said she had escaped the flood with the corpse of her one-month-old child strapped to her chest, adding: "I threw myself into the river and prayed our bodies would be found together."

"Do the politicians have children?" asked her husband. "What would they do if this happened to their families?"

Across the city, the grim task of dealing with the dead has begun. Four generations of Mauricio Berlim's family have worked as undertakers but nothing could have prepared them for the events of this week. On Wednesday morning the 35-year-old woke to the news that landslides had devastated Teresópolis. By 2pm Berlim was arranging four funerals; by 10pm, 50. At midnight he found himself tip-toeing around the corpses of babies and elderly women in the garage of the police station. The next morning he had placed an order for 100 new coffins.

"I work with this and even I can't handle what I'm seeing," Berlim admitted. "It's like Haiti. It's like a tsunami. It's like a big wave came and destroyed everyone and everything."

As decomposing corpses piled up in an improvised morgue, Berlim was blunt: "I think the best idea would be a big hole."

The official death toll from one of the worst natural disasters in Brazil's history is now 598, with some 260 confirmed dead in the Teresópolis region where torrential rain storms triggered violent floods and landslides that scythed through villages, farms and condominiums. At least 267 people died in the neighbouring town of Nova Friburgo.

However, rescue workers, police and government officials all agree that the real death toll is likely to be far higher once remote areas are reached.

At the city's largest cemetery, exhausted gravediggers have been burying corpses well into the night under the glare of floodlights. "Before this week I had never seen a dead body," confessed Fabio Pereira, 30, a local restaurant owner who was helping at the Berlim funeral home. "I washed them with a sponge and a hose. I washed a whole family – eight people. A mum, a dad and six children: a four-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old. It is a vision of war."

Jairon Gama, a physiotherapist who volunteered to help the bereaved identify their relatives, described the situation inside the morgue as horrific. In the basement of an abandoned evangelical church, scores of putrefying bodies lay on black plastic sheets. The smell of rotting flesh wafted into the street, where relatives in face masks queued to identify the bodies. "There are so many children – one-year-olds, four-month-olds, old men and women," said Gama. "The bodies are so swollen that people are confusing their relatives."

One morgue volunteer said that many families were deliberately not identifying dead relatives for fear that they would be made to pay for the burials. "How could a poor family afford to bury 12 relatives?" he asked.

Even Ronaldo Oliveira, head of special operations for Rio de Janeiro's civil police, said he had been shocked by what he had seen as he attempted to rescue survivors with a helicopter normally used to hunt drug traffickers. "I've never seen anything like this in my professional or personal life – never."

Oswaldo Victer, the chief coroner, said he had examined 237 victims, nearly all of whom had been buried alive.

As a succession of coffins was ferried from the basement of Teresópolis's overloaded mortuary into refrigerated storage trucks normally used to transport fish, Fabio Pereira, the restaurateur-turned undertaker, reflected on the week's events. "I only didn't cry because I was in front of the relatives. I swallowed my tears."

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