It could have been New Orleans as it was pummeled by hurricane Katrina-the torrential rains, the rising waters, the families separated, bodies lost and still missing-but it was not. This was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2010, and the culprit was not a breach in the levee, but dozens of mudslides that leveled whole neighborhoods, burying homes and families alive.
Beginning on April 5th, days of record-setting torrential rains rocked Rio de Janeiro, leaving roads flooded, transit stopped, schools cancelled, soccer games postponed, and more than a dozen neighborhoods without electricity.
The steep hillsides of Rio and neighboring Niteroi, claimed most of the victims. There, with little public infrastructure, thousands of poor families live in inadequate cinder-block housing in the world-famous slums, known as favelas. Mudslides-always a threat perched on these precarious hillsides-came down with a vengeance, crushing communities like Niteroi’s Morro do Bumba, Rio’s Complexo do Alemão and Morro do Borel.
Rescue teams arrived. Some were saved. Many were not. Dozens of bodies have yet to be found. On April 13th, in Morro do Bumba, 53 people were still missing. The death toll had reached 232, with 147 in Niteroi alone. To make matters worse, 283 landslides still blocked access to Rio’s crowning feature, Cristo Redentor and the nearby Tijuca National Park.
Once the rains subsided, the mayor of Rio promised to build housing for at least 10,800 people made homeless by the rain or living in areas at risk of landslides. In the meantime, families that have been removed or lost their homes during the downpours will receive grants of up to 500 Reais ($285) a month, for up to one year, to cover the cost of housing until the new projects are finished. But the damage was already done.
Days after the rain, in the center of Rio or the touristy neighborhoods of Botafogo, Ipanema, and Copacabana, there was little sign of the downpours that had just inundated the city. But for the poor communities, the mark was indelible.
"If you’re looking for people to talk about the rains, you won’t find them here," said Eduardo Tonon, standing in front of the Rolex store in downtown Rio where he has worked for 15 years. "But coincidentally, we’re from Niteroi. We saw the rains up close."
Tonon quickly ushered me into the tiny air-conditioned shop, shut the door behind him, and offered me a chair. "Coincidentally, I lost a lot of people in my family from those rains," he said, dropping into his chair, his eyes watering. "Thirteen people as of now. It was terrible. There is no way of explaining it."
Tonon’s family had lived at the foot of Morro do Bumba, in the neighborhood of Viçoso Jardim for more than a hundred years. When the steep slope above their home gave way at 8:40am on Wednesday, April 7th, after a day and a half of downpour and nearly a foot of rain, dozens of houses collapsed and were swallowed by the mud. The landslide consumed the Tonon family residence. Eduardo lost an aunt, a nephew, two cousins, two close friends and more.
"Thank god my direct family wasn’t affected," he says finally with a sigh. Tonon lives nearby with his wife of 21 years, and two sons, "but there are many that were."
The mudslide at Morro do Bumba was the worst in the region, accounting for more than 20% of the total deaths. The tragedy was exacerbated by the fact that the hillside homes had been built on top of a defunct trash dump, increasing the possibility of toxic contamination.
"They put the garbage dump up the hill from [my family] in 1970. The garbage dump ran from 1970 to 1982. It was deactivated in ’82," says Tonon. "In 1988, the people started to put their homes up there." A neighborhood grew out of the homes. By the 1990s, the local government had installed public services including as water and electricity.
This is a common reality in Brazil. With inadequate housing policy to attend to the needs of all of its citizens, Brazil’s poor are pushed to the extremes; forced to build their homes along the margins of the rivers, the precarious hillsides and the outskirts of the cities. Rio de Janeiro is famous for its poor favelas, depicted in movies like City of God and Elite Troop.
Inequality and Segregation
According to the 2000 census, 18.7% of Rio de Janeiro residents lived in favelas, with roughly 13,000 families living in at-risk areas. While national programs installed under the government of President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, such as the Bolsa Família (Family Grant), have helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty, South America’s largest country still ranks among the most unequal on the planet.
Last year, the government announced the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My Home, My Life) program planned to build 1 million affordable homes for low-income Brazilian families by 2011. But with a housing deficit of 7.2 million homes nation-wide, and 300,000 homes in Rio de Janeiro alone, critics say this is just a drop in the bucket.
"The government has invested in upgrading the favelas but never had a consistent housing policy, focused on the creation of popular housing to reduce the housing deficit." says Luiz Cesar Ribeiro from Observatório das Metrópoles, in an April 14th article from the Brazilian weekly, Carta Capital.
"Only now with the federal government’s program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida, are large housing developments for poor populations being created. It’s just that these projects are concentrated in areas that are really far from the center. Taking into account the precariousness of public transportation in Rio, it will be difficult for the population to accept abandoning the hills to confront up to two hours in bus, van and trains to get to work, paying more to travel through the city," said Ribeiro.
"What people need to understand is that the segregation between the different social sectors is huge. In this city, investments are made for the rich. The middle to lower-class are going to continue with their problems," explains Tonon.
As if to highlight this point, last year, the Rio city government began to encircle the city’s favelas with 10-foot high brick walls, or "eco-barriers." City Hall says the move is an effort to "protect" the natural environment by blocking the expansion of the city’s favelas. But residents, such as Rocinha’s Antonio Ferreira de Mello, call the wall "a ghetto, an apartheid, the end of the communication between people."
Tragedy: Who’s to Blame?
Niteroi Mayor Jorge Roberto da Silva has tried to skirt responsibility for the rains, saying, "no one held the Asian governors responsible for the  tsunami or the Chileans for the earthquake." This was admittedly the heaviest rain to hit Rio in 44 years, but it was only a matter of time.
Torrential downpours pummeled Rio de Janeiro in 1966, 1988 and 1996, also with disastrous effects. Only four months ago, at least 69 people were killed as hard rains triggered mudslides just a few hours away in the coastal resort town of Angra dos Reis. Heavy rains also fell this month in the Brazilian states of Sergipe and Bahia, causing at least 90 mudslides. A year and a half ago, torrential downpours in the Southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina caused what was considered at the time, "the worst climatic disaster" of Lula’s presidency, with more than 150 dead, and 100,000 homeless. Over the last week, Santa Catarina has been getting hit again.
"The government knew that this would happen," says Tonon, "they knew about the problem, and decided not to do anything, because they decided it wasn’t worth it Sadly, we live in the world where it’s not worth it to save the poor. And afterwards it’s too late."
"Do you know how many times [Niteroi] Mayor Jorge Roberto came to Morro do Bumba after the tragedy? Once, for 20 minutes, a day and a half later. It’s the same as Louisiana. There, the majority were black and poor. How many times did President George W. Bush, go there after Katrina? If that flooding had happened in Washington, in New York, he would have been there. It’s the same here. If this disaster had happened in upper-class areas along the Niteroi coast or in the Zona Sul, the mayor would have been there immediately. He would have taken care of those people," says Tonon.
While you can’t compare the size of Rio’s recent tragedy to the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought on the Gulf Coast-with the nearly 2,000 "official" deaths and the horrifying exodus of up to a million refugees-there are many similarities. Redevelopers quickly pounced on post-Katrina New Orleans, developing and gentrifying neighborhoods with little input from the community.
Among the Rio communities to be relocated is the São João Batista favela, located in the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo. Its residents say the rains didn’t affect their homes. Instead, they believe their community is scheduled to be moved because of their property’s location and high real estate value, which the city is interested in capitalizing on.
In Rio, like New Orleans, there has also been a breakdown of government support. Some high-profile communities have received help, while others have been left out to dry.
In Niteroi, 70 families left homeless by the rains, protested in front of the City Hall on Monday. "We are surviving with donations from our neighbors. City hall hasn’t given us anything. Bumba isn’t the only place that needs help. They prioritized the residents of Morro do Bumba and forgot the rest of Niteroi," Fernanda Alves da Silva told Rio’s O Globo on Monday.
Both Rio and Niteroi have already begun to hand out the temporary housing stipends for families affected by the rains. But residents complain that that the $100-300 a month isn’t nearly enough to sustain a family of four even in the favelas. Like New Orleans, bureaucratic red-tape has been wrapped around the emergency funds, "to make things as difficult as possible," says Tonon. "Families that should be getting the help aren’t. Others that shouldn’t be are."
But the government response has not been completely bungled. On Sunday, Niteroi Mayor Jorge Roberto da Silva handed over new homes to the first seven Morro do Bumba families. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that 300 families from Morro do Urubu would be the first to be re-settled in Rio de Janeiro. The Pope donated $50,000 to the victims, and the Brazilian government has earmarked over $500 million for the construction of new housing projects.
But that’s nothing compared to the $11.6 billion that the Brazil national, state and municipal governments plan to spend on the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics (not including the 2014 World Cup, which will also be partially held in Rio).
The rains were still falling when many city residents began to question whether or not Rio de Janeiro was really prepared for the upcoming international events. Rio’s world-famous soccer stadium, Maracanã was flooded during the downpour, and the Unilever volleyball team was stranded for hours in the nearby Maracanãzinho gymnasium.
"I don’t think the city is ready if another rain like that happens during the World Cup. Not at all," says Rio resident Bruno Karlos. But the city is looking at options to revamp its sewage and drainage systems, and in the meantime Cariocas (Rio residents) are looking forward to the upcoming events.
"Despite all of our problems, we Brazilians are very hospitable and we know how to throw a party. It’s going to be the best Olympics ever," said Tonon less than two weeks after the hardest rains. "Anywhere else in the world, they wouldn’t accept their problems this easily. The tragedy is 13 days old, but you don’t see anyone talking about it on the street."
"It’s forgotten quickly," he adds. "And a new tragedy will take the place of the one that just passed."
Families affected by the disaster are just hoping that they receive their new homes, before-like hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast Refugees-they too are forgotten.
Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas, and co-editor of the book Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots. You can visit his website at www.blendingthelines.com.