On Thursday, June 17, early in the evening Miguel's battery-run radio began
announcing warnings about the Camará dam on the Mamanguape River. The
dam was breaking, floodwaters were on the way.
Miguel, like so many others,
did not believe what he heard. So he walked outside, down to the riverbank
to take a look. Everything looked normal. There was some fog on the river,
he remembered, a little more than usual, that was all.
Miguel, his family and
the town of Alagoa Grande, in the northeastern state of Paraíba, were
literally in the dark: the electricity had gone off. That could have been
seen as a sign of some trouble. But certainly not the enormous tragedy that
was about to happen.
In another home, Ligia
got a phone call warning her of danger. She lived alone with her mother and
had not been listening to the radio. She was taken by surprise. She did not
believe there was a serious problem.
"This river always
comes and goes, it is up and down all the time," she thought.
Ligia's disbelief was
short lived. Very short lived. Quickly water was coming into her home from
all sides. "Come along," she cried as she grabbed her old mother.
"The good Jesus is so far away and we're going to have to save ourselves."
In yet another house,
Maria de Lourdes was already in bed. She heard her neighbors screaming for
her to leave the house. When she got out of bed the water was knee high.
Outside it was roaring
down the street. Along with Miguel, Maria de Lourdes escaped by scampering
up a hillside just behind their houses. It was the highest point in town.
The only place the waters did not cover.
Meanwhile, Ligia and her
mother climbed on top of their home. The rushing waters carried Ligia to one
side of the roof and her mother to the other side where the old lady disappeared.
"I just never thought
she would die this way. I knew the end was near, she was 83, but I never expected
anything like this," said a stunned Ligia.
The mother, Palmira Rocha
da Silva, was one of the five people who died when the Camará dam burst
in Alagoa Grande, population around 30,000, which lies 140 kilometers inland
from the state capital of João Pessoa, in the Northeastern state of
The town is located in
an area of rolling hills that receive abundant rainfall. The hillsides are
dotted with mud huts where poor farmers live, tending small cornfields and
raising farm animals.
But the dominant feature
is the sugarcane, rippling in the breeze like water on the ocean (according
to the Brazilian poet, João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-99), who wrote
knowingly of the Northeast and its sugarcane fields). The sugarcane is used
to make sugar or ethanol. The sugarcane fields belong to people who own huge
sugarmills and often live far away.
Around 250 homes in Alagoa
Grande were destroyed by the floodwaters. Almost 800 families were left homeless.
At least 300 of those families have now been forced to live in local public
buildings, such as schools. Some 100 commercial establishments lost goods
Besides Alagoa Grande,
the waters roared through another town, Mulungu, where there was even more
destruction. The state government estimates the total damage at US$ 9.8 million
(30 million reais).
All of this was caused
when the Camará dam burst and spilt 17 million cubic meters of water
downstream. The dam cost US$6.5 million ($20 million reaus) and was supposedly
built with cutting edge technology.
"We were demolished,"
is the way the survivors describe what happened. Ligia, who is unemployed
and lived on her mother's pension of a minimum wage (260 reaisUS$ 87),
does not know what to do.
Miguel, born in Alagoa
Grande, had just returned from Rio de Janeiro where he had gone seeking a
better life that he did not find. And Maria de Lourdes: "I managed to
save my cow," she says proudly, "even though I lost my house."
The house, she explains, was paid for by her ex-husband. It cost four head
of cattle and a donkey.
These are people with
few illusions regarding human generosity. They now see fierce struggles take
place as local inhabitants dispute food baskets, clothes and other items sent
by charities and government agencies.
"We know that almost
everyone here is needy, but we have to make sure that this aid reaches the
people who were victims of the flood," explains Gerlane Cruz Nunes, 40,
a school teacher in Alagoa Grande who came through the tragedy unscathed and
is now a volunteer in the distribution of assistance.
Gerlane stands in the
doorway of a school as she speaks and as she speaks a group of about 40 women
begin pushing their way into the school where donated items are temporarily
stockpiled. "Please, there is so much," they plead.
"There is enough
for everyone. We are also needy. Just let us get a few things," says
one of them.
The most urgent need is
home reconstruction. Ligia explains the problem: "During the day I'm
ok. But at night, having to sleep in somebody else's house, it is terrible.
There is nothing worse."
There is also a need to
find out why what happened happened. "Some people say the government
is to blame. They built the dam too quickly and now we have to pay the price,"
"The engineer is
responsible and should pay the damages," exclaims Maria de Lourdes.
Ligia is a disbeliever:
"You just cannot trust people, that's all. You can only trust God. Believing
in people is a waste of time. One day they promise one thing, and the next
they do something else."
Spensy Pimentel works for Agência Brasil (AB), the official press
agency of the Brazilian government. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
from the Portuguese by Allen Bennett.