The death toll in Rio’s hilly regions destroyed by the rains and mudslides in the last two weeks should reach 1,500, according to Felipe Santa Cruz, from Rio de Janeiro state’s Bar Association. This Wednesday, Rio’s Public Ministry issued a new list with the names of 518 people missing. More than 830 deaths have already been confirmed.
Santa Cruz’s assessment is based on two findings: There is still a large number of people who are still missing and there is no way to calculate the number of families in remote regions who buried the victims of disaster close to home due to the impossibility of taking the bodies to morgues and cemeteries.
“The number of dead certainly exceeds 1500. Once the searches are conducted we will unfortunately reach or even exceed this number,” said Santa Cruz.
The Bar Association has created a committee to monitor the distribution of government money to counties devastated by the heavy rains.
A report from Civil Defense officials in the state of Santa Catarina indicated that a total of 684,848 people have been negatively impacted by the recent rains that have punished no less than 49 municipalities in the state since January 18 (there are 293 municipalities in the state with a total population of around 6.2 million).
The rainy season in Brazil is characterized by the movement of humidity out of the Amazon diagonally across the country (more or less from northwest to southeast).
Because of this climatic feature, contrary to what a lot of people think, the greatest rainfall in Brazil is in the country’s southeastern coastal region where the states of Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are located as the heavy, moist clouds from the Amazon dump their load there. This phenomenon is known as the Atlantic Ocean convergence zone.
After causing the disaster in the “região serrana” (mountain area) of the state of Rio de Janeiro on January 12, the convergence zone shifted slightly to the south, and is now dumping enormous amounts of rain on coastal areas in the states of São Paulo, Paraná and, especially, Santa Catarina.
The weather forecast for Santa Catarina is for the rains to continue. And it will be heavy rain, varying from 100 mm to 150 mm in the greater metropolitan area of Florianópolis, most of the coastline and the Vale do Itajaí.
Curiously, as a consequence of La Niña in the Pacific Ocean, a little further south, in Brazil’s southern most state of Rio Grande do Sul, a large area is in a state of emergency because of drought!
Officials at the Secretariat of Health, along with Civil Defense authorities, in the state of Rio de Janeiro have confirmed three cases of leptospirosis (Leptospira) in the mountainous region where at least 800 people died and some 20,000 were displaced or left homeless after rains, flooding and mudslides on January 12.
However, given the dimensions of the tragedy, the number is considered low. In fact, according to Alexandre Chieppe, head of Epidemiological Control, only one of the cases is directly linked to the recent rains; the other two cases occurred before January 12.
Chieppe reported that since the January 12 rains health agents have known that an outbreak of leptospirosis was possible and have been oriented to act quickly as early diagnosis is very important in dealing with the disease.
Meanwhile, Edimilson Migowski, an expert in infectious diseases from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), explained that contact with water contaminated by rat urine was the cause of leptospirosis.
He said that in his opinion the reason for the low number of cases was because most of the flooding in the região serrana occurred after rainwater rolled down rural hillsides where rats are not common. Problems with leptospirosis, he pointed out, are perennial in large, mostly flat, urban areas where rats proliferate in sewage systems.
The city of Nova Friburgo continues to lead in number of deaths with almost 390. Teresópolis with around 325. Petrópolis with about 70. All of these cities are tourist sites – located in pine-covered hills around 2,000 meters above sea level that look very much like European countryside.
So much so that in the middle of the 19th century, Brazil’s then-emperor, Dom Pedro II, populated the area with immigrants from places like Fribourg, a canton in western Switzerland. Petrópolis was a summer retreat for the royal family and their palace in the city is a must-see for visitors.
Civil Defense officials say that a total of almost 20,000 people have lost their homes or are temporarily without shelter in the region.
Doctors Without Borders
Two teams from the Doctors Without Borders group have arrived in the mountains of the state of Rio de Janeiro where the worst natural disaster in Brazilian history occurred beginning on January 12 as a result of heavy rains, flooding and mudslides.
One team, consisting of a doctor and psychologist, are located in the city of Nova Friburgo. The other team, a doctor, psychologist and a nurse, are in São José do Vale do Rio Preto.
Meanwhile, a third team, consisting of only psychologists, is busy training a group of 25 Brazilian mental care workers. They are located in the city of Nova Friburgo. According to a spokesperson, one of the main needs after a disaster such as the one in the região serrana is for psychological assistance.
The Rio state secretary of Environment, Carlos Minc, has announced a package of emergency measures to deal with catastrophes such as the January 12 rains, floods and mudslides. Civil defense personnel will receive special training in dealing with situations of risk efficiently and in a timely fashion.
The initiative will be supported by the federal Ministry of National Integration and will consist of updating maps of areas of risk. The existing map of the mountainous region of the state where the tragedy took place is five years old, The plan also calls for the purchase of modern equipment to measure river levels and two new weather radar stations.
Brazil’s federal government and the state of Rio de Janeiro have created the Emergency Committee for the Protection of Children (Comitê Emergencial de Proteção à Criança e ao Adolescente) that will ensure the safety of, and medical care for, children affected by the heavy rains of January 12, that were followed by flooding and mudslides in the mountains of the state.
The announcement of the establishment of the committee was made by the head of the Secretariat for Human Rights, Maria do Rosário, who personally visited Teresópolis on Wednesday, January 19. According to the minister, children who are not accompanied by an adult will have to be sheltered separately from other adults in order to ensure that they are protected in accordance with the Brazilian Statute of Children.
A separate entity (SOS Criança Desaparecida – SOS, Missing Child) to deal with missing children, or those separated from their parents, was also set up.
A local judge in Teresópolis, one of the cities hardest hit by the tragedy, denied that illegal adoptions of orphans were taking place in the region. The judge said that all normal legal procedures would have to be followed to the letter in all adoption cases.