The weather in Brazil is causing chaos once again.
It is the rainy season but here in Canto Verde, in the North East, we have had hardly any rain, certainly very little in comparison to last year, but in Rio De Janeiro and the surrounding areas the rain has been falling steadily and heavily. It was reported on the news that the rain fall over a 48 hour period was enough to have filled 300,000 olympic size swimming pools, that is a staggering amount of water, and more rain is forecast. The land can no longer absorb the amount of water and landslides have begun. Various areas have been declared to be at high risk of landslides, many of them (but not exclusively) where illegal building activity has taken place.
At this moment I am watching a report on the television from Rio, where last night around nine o clock, an area of hill-side 600 meters long and 50-70 meters wide slid down, taking with it and covering at least 50 homes, a restaurant and nursery.
A resident who lives at the bottom of the hill said there was an explosion, he ran out of his house and saw a cloud of dust flying down the hill, moments later there was a second explosion and the landslide began. The man’s cousin who lives nearby said that this is the second time there has been a landslide here. On the previous occasion last year, one house collapsed and a person died. The reporter asked the woman if this had been reported to the authorities, she said it was and had been on the national news.
The noise of the explosion probably saved the lives of many people. The reporters have spoken to a number of people who said they heard the first explosion and left their homes, seeing the cloud of dust they called to their families to get out and were able to scramble to safety when the landslide began. A fire chief said the rescue work was begun by relatives and neighbours before the rescue teams could arrive. He said these people are indeed the hero’s of the hour as without them many more people would have died.
The secretary for civil defense arrived on the scene shortly after the landslide. He reported that he quickly became aware of an unusual smell, (deep earth has a very particular smell and this wasn’t it). Investigation revealed that the area had been used as a rubbish dump, for at least 20 years. The rubbish had been covered with a layer of clay and the homes were built (without permission) on top of this. A geologist said that, while he couldn’t say for certain, he was pretty sure the increased rainfall had seeped into the decomposing rubbish and accelerated the natural process, causing a build up of gas which then exploded, causing the landslide.
The decomposing rubbish has caused more problems for the rescue teams. At three o clock in the morning the rescue workers were ordered to stop hand digging because of the health risks. The workers are now using machines to dig out the rubbish, earth and mud but access is difficult. Each digger has a member of the rescue team positioned on the front of it, when that person thinks there is a possibility of finding someone, the machines stop and the area is dug by hand again.
It wasn’t raining at the time of the landslide and thankfully for the rescue effort, the rain held off for the most part of the night and morning, but the chief of the rescue mission said he is not hopeful of finding any more survivors. Usually where there has been a landslide, pockets of air under the rubble and earth give people a chance of survival, but here the rubbish and mud have formed a sort of paste, this combined with the gas leaking out from the rubbish, makes the likely hood of there being any air trapped very remote. The gas hasn’t yet been identified but is probably methane, however as drums containing chemical waste have been found, it is possible that other gasses are also present.
The contaminated soil that is being dug out is being loaded onto lorries and taken away, but where its final destination will be isn’t clear yet. The secretary for The Environment is currently assessing the situation
Alongside the rescue effort is the work of finding the victims somewhere to go. At the moment those who have no relatives or friends who can help, have been moved into the local school, but obviously this can only be a temporary arrangement.
The people whose houses are on the area to the sides of the land slide, have been ordered to leave their homes as there is a high risk of further landslides, but many of them are reluctant to leave.
6 dead, 51 injured and roughly 200 missing
3000 people are homeless in Rio because of the rain.
The topography of Rio, high mountains with a thin covering of topsoil which is held in place by vegetation, with a narrow flat area leading to the sea. When there is heavy rain during high tide, there is no where for the water to go and some flooding is inevitable, however, as usual the problem is aggravated by the lack of building control, the removal of vegetation from the hillsides which destabilises the soil and the illegal dumping of rubbish which blocks drains.
As one television presenter pointed out, Rio is in the area of the Tropic of Capricorn, heavy rain is a feature and the authorities and individual citizens all have a part to play in minimising the risks.
Waves 5 meters high are hitting the coast of Rio.
The cold front that has so badly affected Rio, while still causing rain to fall there, has moved north reaching Salvador, and is forecast to hit the whole of the North East soon. As much as we need the rain, too much in any one go will cause flooding in this region again.
©Claire Pattison Valente 2010