The landslides that hit Petropolis this week destroyed homes and tore families apart, scarred hillsides and hearts, and left at least 136 people dead or missing.
And it was all basically foreseeable, if not entirely avoidable.
This mountain community in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state has been troubled by rapid development, bad planning, and a lack of funding for subsidized housing. According to scholars and current and former government employees, nothing has been done in response to repeated warnings about the dangers of mountainside development.
And, with evidence that climate change is creating more extreme rains, the danger has only grown – not only for Petropolis, but for the rest of the world as well.
More than 1,500 people have died in comparable landslides in that part of the Serra do Mar range in previous decades. Since 1981, more than 400 people have died in Petropolis as a result of severe storms.
For almost 30 years, Antônio Guerra, a geography professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has investigated weather-related disasters in Petropolis. He has explored the core causes of hundreds of places where houses and lives have been engulfed by mudslides.
“Rain is the major villain, but improper land usage is the primary cause.” In a phone conversation, Guerra stated, “There is a complete absence of planning.”
The chaotic development of Petropolis is relatively new. Petropolis, located 40 miles from Rio de Janeiro and named for a previous Brazilian ruler, was one of the country’s earliest planned communities.
Along its canals, early immigrants erected beautiful houses. However, the city’s success in recent decades has attracted people from poorer areas, and the population has risen to almost 300,000. Mountainsides are now densely packed with little dwellings built by individuals who are unaware of the risks. Because they can’t afford to build elsewhere, many have erected without necessary authorization.
Deforestation and poor drainage have made many high-risk locations increasingly more prone, according to Guerra. People forget calamities over time and return to ruined locations, where they build buildings on dangerous terrain.
Yara Valverde oversaw the federal environmental regulator’s local office for nearly two decades. She established the city’s first hydrogeological risk alert system in 2001, using plastic bottles to collect rainwater in neighborhoods. Sirens blared when they reached a specific level.
She enlisted volunteers because there was no official funding for the initiative.
Guerra and a team of civil engineers and geologists assessed dangerous locations in Petropolis and communicated their results to the city between 2007 and 2010. The following January, torrential rains triggered landslides that killed approximately 1,000 people, including 71 in Petropolis. It was regarded as the worst natural disaster in Brazilian history.
The city is aware of the issue. Authorities estimated that 18% of the city, or around 20,000 homes, were at high or extremely high risk in 2017. Another 7,000 people would have to be moved, according to a city plan that called for the building of affordable housing units and a moratorium on new development in high-risk regions.
According to Guerra, Valverde, non-governmental groups, and locals, nothing has been done to put that idea into action.
There is little room in Petropolis for new, safe development, and displacing inhabitants from their old houses is politically difficult — there is frequently no place to transfer them near their original residences. Rio state was already trying to recover from a three-year recession when the epidemic devastated the local economy.
However, according to official figures cited by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Rio’s state government spent less than half of the money set aside for disaster prevention and response.
Inspections of at–risk zones, housing policies, and relocations are the duty of the city, according to the state’s building and infrastructure secretariat in an email to the Associated Press.
The city has failed to respond to many requests for information on how many families have been moved since 2017 and what additional steps have been made to carry out the plan.
President Jair Bolsonaro attempted to escape responsibility by claiming that the money for preventative measures is insufficient. In response to global outcry, he remarked Friday from Petropolis, “A lot of instances, we have no means to prevent against everything that can happen.”
Heavy rains are common in the region, especially during the summer of the Southern Hemisphere, which runs from December to March. Experts believe the rains appear to be increasing heavier as a result of climate change.
Since the beginning of the year, severe rains have pounded Southeastern Brazil. Mudslides in Minas Gerais state in early January and Sao Paulo state later that month resulted in more than 40 deaths. Following months of drought – Brazil’s worst in nine decades – hydroelectric reservoirs in the southeast fell to dangerously low levels, raising fears of power rationing.
“They’re all weather extremes, and they’re all happening at the same time.” “We can definitely see how climate change is increasing the frequency of incidents,” said Marcelo Seluchi, a coordinator at the government’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters. “It’s not about focusing on a single incident, but on the whole.”
Seluchi’s center issued a “very high” danger advisory for Petropolis on the eve of the last landslide, warning of rains with “the potential to create a big impact on the population.” Authorities should consider evacuating at-risk regions, according to the agency.
According to the center, 259 millimeters (10 inches) of rain fell in only three hours the next day, the highest since 1932.
Rio Gov. Claudio Castro said the downpour was “completely unanticipated” during a press conference on Wednesday. He didn’t say whether the devastation and deaths might have been prevented.
Before Tuesday’s catastrophic landslides, 18 of Petropolis’ 20 risk alert sirens sounded, alerting residents of a coming threat, but the Associated Press found no indication that officials ordered evacuations.
The Associated Press reported that some households had received text messages from officials alerting them of the impending storm. Others claimed to have got no notification at all. Several districts were also eliminated since the majority of the city’s sirens were located in the downtown area.
The city did not reply to several requests for comment from the Associated Press.
Fernando Arajo, 46, claims the government has been ignoring his Vila Felipe area for as long as he can recall.
“As a 46-year resident, I’m confident that as soon as the sun shines and the weather settles, they’ll stop coming here and paying attention to us.” People will clean up and rebuild on their own, and this will happen again at some point in the future.”
Many cities in the region, according to Valverde, the former environmental regulator who established the danger alert system, lack the political will to address the problem.
“They pretend they care, but when it comes to making decisions, like removing houses in high-risk areas or prohibiting new building, they give in,” she added.
“They must be held responsible.” If we don’t do something, it will happen again and again.”