The landslides that devastated the Brazilian mountain city of Petropolis this week demolished houses and ripped families apart, scarred hillsides and hearts, and left at least 120 dead and nearly as many missing.
And it was all largely predictable – and to some degree, preventable.
Rapid urbanisation, poor planning, lack of financing for subsidised housing – all of these things have afflicted the city in Rio de Janeiro state – and little has been done in response to repeated warnings about the risks of mountainside construction, researchers, as well as current and former public servants, have said.
Now, with evidence indicating that climate change is causing more intense rainfall, peril has only increased — not just for Petropolis, but elsewhere, too.
Antonio Guerra, a geography professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has studied weather-related catastrophes in Petropolis for almost 30 years. He has visited dozens of sites where houses and lives were swallowed by torrents of mud, and investigated the root causes.
“Rain is the great villain, but the main cause is poor land use. There’s a total lack of planning,” Guerra told The Associated Press.
More than 1,500 people have died in similar landslides in recent decades in that portion of the Serra do Mar range. There have been more than 400 deaths from heavy storms in Petropolis alone since 1981.
The city’s haphazard sprawl is recent. Nestled in the mountains some 64km (40 miles) from Rio de Janeiro and named for a former Brazilian emperor, Petropolis was among the nation’s first planned cities.
Earlier settlers built stately homes along its waterways. But in recent decades the city’s prosperity has drawn newcomers from poorer regions and the population grew to about 300,000.
Mountainsides are now covered with small homes packed tightly together, constructed by people who are not fully aware of the dangers. Many have built without proper permissions because they cannot afford to do so elsewhere.
Many high-risk areas are even more vulnerable due to deforestation or inadequate drainage, Guerra said. As time goes by, people forget disasters and return to devastated areas, building houses on unsafe ground.
For nearly two decades, Yara Valverde led the local office of the federal environmental regulator. In 2001, she started the city’s first hydrogeological risk alert system, installing plastic bottles in communities to collect rainfall. When they reached a certain level, sirens blasted.
There was no public money allotted for the programme, so she enlisted volunteers.
Between 2007 and 2010, Guerra and a team of civil engineers and geologists mapped risky areas in Petropolis and sent their findings to the city. The next January, heavy rain set off landslides that claimed nearly 1,000 lives, 71 of them in Petropolis. It was considered Brazil’s worst-ever natural disaster.
The city has recognised the problem. In 2017, authorities noted that 18 percent of the city – including about 20,000 households – was at high or very high risk. Yet another 7,000 would also need to be relocated, according to a plan devised by the municipality, which called for the construction of affordable housing units and a halt to new construction in at-risk areas.
Guerra, Valverde, non-governmental organisations and residents say little has been done to execute that vision. There is little available space in Petropolis for new, safe construction, and removing residents from existing homes is unpopular politically – there is often nowhere to relocate residents near their original homes.
The Brazilian daily Folha de S Paulo, citing official data, reported that Rio’s state government spent less than half of the money earmarked for its disaster prevention and response programme.
Rio state’s construction and infrastructure secretariat said in an email to AP that inspections of at-risk areas, housing policy and relocations are the city’s responsibility. The city did not reply to repeated requests for information on how many families had been relocated since 2017 and what other measures had been undertaken to carry out the plan.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has tried to deflect the blame, saying the budget for preventive measures is limited. “A lot of times, we have no way to guard against everything that might happen,” he said on Friday from Petropolis after flying over the disaster.
Dozens of hillside houses were destroyed by the landslides on Tuesday in the heaviest rainfall registered since 1932. Cars and buses were swept away in the floods that left a trail of destruction down city streets.
Downpours continued increasing the climate of fear and anguish in the city as residents searched for missing relatives and friends.
Heavy rains are typical in the region, especially during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, between December and March. But with climate change, the rains appear to be getting heavier, experts say.
“They are all weather extremes, happening very close to one another. Climate change also acts to increase the frequency of events, and we are clearly observing this,” said Marcelo Seluchi, a coordinator at the government’s National Centre for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters. “It’s not about looking at a particular event, but the total.”
Southeastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains since the start of the year. More than 40 deaths were recorded between mudslides in Minas Gerais state in early January and Sao Paulo state later the same month.
That followed months of drought – Brazil’s worst in nine decades – that saw hydroelectric reservoirs in the southeast fall to levels that raised concern about possible power rationing.