RIO DE JANEIRO – Fire crews and desperate residents searched for victims Wednesday after landslides and strong flooding swept through a mountainous area north of Rio de Janeiro, triggering protracted rain overnight and left at least 78 people dead.
The mayor of Petrópolis, a historic city nestled in the mountains about 70 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro’s beaches, said the death toll could still rise. ONE Similar disaster killed more than 900 people in the area in 2011. Many experts say such extreme weather events are becoming more common with global warming.
Violent rain that began Tuesday night triggered a landslide that tore through dozens of homes in the hillsides above Petrópolis and caused more damaging flooding in the streets below. Photos and videos on social media show rivers of mud flooding the city’s streets, washing away everything in its path: cars, trees and sometimes people.
Brazil’s National Meteorological Institute said the rains caused the heaviest devastation the city has seen since 1952.
“What we saw was a really extreme event,” said Cássia de Castro Martins Ferreira, a researcher at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora who studies extreme weather phenomena in the region. “It didn’t rain – it was an unusual amount of water pouring down.”
For many residents of Petrópolis, the disaster was a painful reminder of 2011, when similar mudslides killed more than 900 people in the area – the worst natural disaster in Brazilian history.
Petrópolis is part of a picturesque region with a large national park and sheer forested mountains that have become a getaway for those fleeing the extreme temperatures of the coast. It was founded in the mid-19th century by Brazilian Emperor Pedro IIwho held court there during the sweltering summer months.
But its unique geography also makes it vulnerable to extreme rainfall, Ms. This area is often where hot air masses from the coast collide with colder temperatures, common at higher altitudes, which can cause storms.
“We have a large number of extreme weather events in Petrópolis, related precisely to its location,” she said. But another risk, she said, “is the way the city has evolved.”
As Petrópolis expanded, residents moved into the hills, clearing forests that had served as buffers against landslides and building homes on terrain that was often too steep and unsuitable for development.
After the 2011 mudslide, officials made plans to prevent similar tragedies in the area. But those plans have progressed slowly amid a lack of funding and a shift in political power.
In Brazil, the priority is to create more robust systems to warn people against extreme weather events, Ms. Castro said. In Petrópolis, only a few neighborhoods are equipped with weather hazard sirens, while state and local governments have yet to install such systems in other vulnerable places.
Heavy rains are not uncommon during the summer months in Brazil. But most experts agree that extreme weather events are becoming more common. In December, floods killed at least 20 people and displaced about 50,000 people in the northeast of the country. And last month, dozens of people were killed in São Paulo and Minas Gerais . when torrential rains swept across the two states.
Jack Nicas contribution report.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/16/world/americas/brazil-mudslides-death.html Mud in Brazil kills at least 78 people