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‘You feel powerless’: Families devastated following Brazil’s deadly mudslides

Climate experts have warned that intense rainstorms — and their devastating effects — are going to become more frequent as the Earth’s atmosphere warms. 
Image: The path of a mudslide marks a hillside filled with homes in Petropolis, Brazil, on Feb. 17, 2022.
The path of a mudslide marks a hillside filled with homes in Petrópolis, Brazil, on Feb. 17, 2022. óSilvia Izquierdo / AP

PETRÓPOLIS, Brazil — With a gardening tool in hand, Gisela Arcaminate searched through the mud and rubble Wednesday hoping to find her daughter.

Arcaminate along with other volunteers are still searching for people missing after torrential rain caused flooding and mudslides, destroying houses, streets and much of the infrastructure of the city of Petrópolis, just north of Rio de Janeiro. 

In Morro da Oficina, where Arcaminate has looked for her relatives, 80 houses disappeared in a matter of minutes. As of Friday, 117 bodies had been found, and more than 100 people were still missing. 

Maicon Pinto, 39, a businessman, said he lost an aunt in the avalanche of mud that tore through the hill at a height of almost 26 feet. 

“The sheer size of the wave made it impossible even to dig the debris by hand,” he said. “You feel powerless.” 

Located almost 3,000 feet above sea level, Petrópolis has a population of around 300,000 and is an important tourist destination in the region. Less than an hour from the famous capital, the town attracts thousands of tourists every year. It is also known for its summer rains.

According to meteorologists, the recent storm that hit the area delivered an entire month of expected rain in just three hours. The deluge also hit a very specific part of town, soaking the already thick soil that sits above a layer of rock. The massive weight triggered mudslides that cascaded down the steep slopes, destroying dozens of homes and quickly overflowing the city’s historical center. Many in its path were trapped and could not escape.

Such rainstorms, once rare, are becoming more common — as are their devastating effects. Similar storms and floods hit Europe in July, with climate experts warning that such storms are going to become more frequent as the Earth’s atmosphere warms. 

Image: Rescue teams and residents look for survivors after a mudslide in Petropolis, Brazil on Feb.16, 2022.
Rescue teams and residents look for survivors after a mudslide in Petrópolis, Brazil on Feb.16, 2022. Carl de Souza / AFP - Getty Images

Stories like Pinto’s can be heard everywhere in the city. Josimar da Silva, a longtime friend of Pinto’s, said he lost three sons and his wife. Down the valley, dozens of buses and hundreds of cars were ripped apart and thrown in the flooded river. A family is still trying to find their son who was last recorded helping passengers in a sinking bus. 

A local lawyer, João Barreto, was stuck in a building during the disaster and said that once the water was receded, many bodies could be seen around the main streets. 

Luciane Esteves, 41, a bank officer, said heavy rain is such a normal occurrence in the summer that many were caught off guard.

“Areas that never flooded did. All the commerce district was destroyed, and many areas downtown are still at risk,” she said. “Right now there’s a gigantic boulder dangerously threatening to fall from a nearby hill.”

Many residents said the events echoed what happened 11 years ago, when a similar downpour triggered massive landslides, killing almost 1,000 people in the region.

Romário Portilho, 30, a geography student, said the differences between the two events are crucial. This one, he said, seemed more destructive.

“What happened recently was focused in five neighborhoods,” he said. “So the consequences were much more dire.”

Once an industrial and thriving city, Petrópolis suffered from the Brazilian economic crisis of the 1980s and saw many of its factories and jobs disappear. Since then, it has grown as a tourist destination, but it never fully recovered. The drop in the population’s income and its rising unemployment contributed to the growing construction of irregular houses on the slopes and hills of the city, which is situated within the Atlantic Forest

This urban sprawl helped create the scenario for the current destruction, with these precarious residences weakening an already thick layer of soil.

Paulo Artaxo, a physics professor at University of São Paulo and a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said even though the rain was unusual, the human toll of the disaster could have been smaller. 

Image: Aerial view after a mudslide in Petropolis, Brazil on Feb. 17, 2022 during the second day of rescue operations.
Aerial view after a mudslide in Petrópolis, Brazil on Feb. 17, 2022 during the second day of rescue operations.Carl de Souza / AFP - Getty Images

He noted that the people affected by the disaster are among the poorest and most vulnerable populations, which makes their recovery even more difficult. 

“There are alert systems about extreme events that work all the time here in Brazil, and, in cases like these, cities are warned,” Artaxo said. “Public bodies have the scientific information to make decisions, such as removing people from risk areas during the rains.”

He added that this disaster is also an example of the effects of climate change.

“Abnormal events like these rains, that used to be rare, are happening with increasing frequency here and around the world,” Artaxo said.

The local response to the disaster has been the target of heavy criticism. Cláudio Castro, governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, was booed while visiting the affected area. He said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that preventive action was needed to keep these tragedies from recurring, but he admitted owing a debt to the townspeople.

Rubens Bomtempo, the mayor of Petrópolis, declined to comment. 

In Arcaminate’s case, all of the efforts came too late. The body of her 17-year-old daughter was found, along with her other relatives and friends, Wednesday afternoon.