Brazil flood death toll keeps rising amid disease, water shortages

Jan. 17, 2011 at 5:57 PM
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RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The death toll from floods and mudslides in Brazil kept rising Monday amid mounting concern for the health of survivors who faced fresh water shortages and disease from decomposing bodies in stagnant waters.

Officials said about 700 inhabitants in isolated communities died in the past six days of flooding of poorly constructed neighborhoods -- now designated as potential death traps for survivors.

Whole neighborhoods were washed away, leaving little time for inhabitants to take belongings as the flood waters rose.

Rescue teams struggled to clear the bodies of victims and carcasses of animals in outlying areas cut off from roads and towns by the floodwaters.

Civilians and local rescue teams were aided by military personnel but progress was slow. Military helicopter rescue teams struggled to keep up with demand for emergency aid to many isolated communities.

Rescue organizers said the flood emergency was the worst in Brazil's history but critics of the rescue effort cited instances of slow response. Although flooding and mudslides hit the state of Rio de Janeiro last Wednesday, President Dilma Rousseff declared a regional state of mourning over the weekend.

Mudslides continued through Sunday and at least three people died in one incident in Itaipava in the state of Maranhao in northeastern Brazil. State news agency Agencia Brasil is keeping the tally of the dead and injured and announcing updates in casualties and rescue results.

In addition to about 700 reported deaths, at least 120 people are unaccounted for, Brazilian radio reported.

Officials said regional governments worried about the impact of the flood and mudslides on tourism, a major source of revenue for most of Brazil. Authorities in Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis have been developing a joint strategy to keep the areas open for tourism.

The mudslides north of Rio de Janeiro last week were caused by rains that poured the equivalent of a month's precipitation in just a few hours into the area.

Damage from the mudslides and flooding was made worse by the poor quality of housing, most of it illegal. Corruption, gang warfare and municipal inaction combined to make the temporary buildings lethal for their inhabitants.

Although Brazil has positioned itself as the pre-eminent emergent economy in Latin America, the flood emergency once again exposed inherent weaknesses of poor governance and lax application of building regulations on hundreds of makeshift communities.

The flood disaster was the first major challenge for Rousseff, who took over the presidency Jan. 1 from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Although Rousseff ordered cash subsidies for the area, she spent the weekend at her private residence in the southern city of Porto Alegre.

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