And with evidence indicating that climate change is causing more intense rainfall, the peril has only increased – not just for Petropolis, but also elsewhere.
More than 1,500 people have died in similar landslides in recent decades in this part of the Serra do Mar range. Since 1981, in Petropolis alone, more than 400 deaths have been caused by severe storms.
Antônio Guerra, professor of geography at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has studied climate-related disasters in Petropolis for almost 30 years. He visited dozens of sites where homes and lives were swallowed up by torrents of mud and investigated the root causes.
“Rain is the big bad guy, but the main cause is poor land use. There is a complete lack of planning,” Guerra said in a phone interview.
The anarchic spread of Petropolis is recent. Nestled in the mountains about 40 miles from Rio de Janeiro and named after a former Brazilian emperor, Petropolis was one of the first planned cities in the country.
Early settlers built stately homes along its waterways. But in recent decades the city’s prosperity has attracted newcomers from poorer areas and the population has grown to around 300,000. The sides of the mountains are now covered with small houses huddled together, built 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. Over time, people forget the disasters and return to the devastated areas, building houses on dangerous land.
For nearly two decades, Yara Valverde headed the local office of the federal environmental regulator. In 2001, she launched the city’s first hydrogeological hazard warning system, installing plastic bottles in communities to collect rainfall. When they reached a certain level, the sirens sounded.
There were no government funds allocated to the program, so she recruited volunteers.
Between 2007 and 2010, Guerra and a team of civil engineers and geologists mapped risk areas in Petropolis and sent their findings to the city. The following January, heavy rains caused landslides that claimed nearly 1,000 lives, including 71 in Petropolis. It was considered Brazil’s worst natural disaster.
The city has recognized the problem. In 2017, authorities noted that 18% of the city – including around 20,000 households – was at high or very high risk. Yet another 7,000 people would also need to be relocated, according to a plan drawn up by the city that included building affordable housing and halting new construction in at-risk areas.
Guerra, Valverde, nongovernmental organizations and residents say little has been done to realize this vision.
There is little space available in Petropolis for safe new construction, and removing residents from existing homes is politically unpopular – there is often nowhere to relocate residents near their original homes. Even before the pandemic hit the local economy, Rio state was struggling to recover from a crushing three-year recession.
But Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo, citing official data, reported that the Rio state government spent less than half of the money earmarked for its disaster prevention and response program. .
Rio state’s construction and infrastructure secretariat said in an email to the AP that inspections of risk areas, housing policy and relocations are the responsibility of the city.
The city has not responded to repeated requests for information on the number of families rehoused since 2017 and other steps taken to implement the plan.
President Jair Bolsonaro tried to deflect blame, saying the budget for preventive measures was limited. “A lot of times we have no way of protecting ourselves against anything that might happen,” he said from Petropolis on Friday, in response to widespread outrage.
Heavy rains are typical of the region, especially during the Southern Hemisphere summer, between December and March. But with climate change, the rains appear to be getting heavier, experts say.
Southeast Brazil has been punished by heavy rains since the beginning of the year. More than 40 deaths were recorded between mudslides in Minas Gerais state in early January and in Sao Paulo state later the same month. This followed months of drought – the worst in Brazil in nine decades – which saw hydroelectric reservoirs in the southeast fall to levels that raised concerns about possible power rationing.
“These are all extreme weather conditions, occurring very close to each other. Climate change is also acting to increase the frequency of events, and we are clearly observing this,” said Marcelo Seluchi, coordinator at the government’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters. “It’s not about looking at one particular event, but the total.”
On the eve of the latest landslide, the center of Seluchi sent a “very high” risk alert for Petropolis, warning of rains “likely to have a significant impact on the population”. The agency recommended that authorities consider evacuating areas at risk.
The following day, 259 millimeters (10 inches) of rain fell in just three hours – by far the most since 1932, according to the center.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Rio Governor Claudio Castro insisted the deluge was “totally unpredictable”. He did not say whether the destruction and loss of life could have been avoided.
Eighteen of 20 Petropolis hazard warning sirens sounded ahead of Tuesday’s deadly landslides, warning residents of impending danger, but the AP found no evidence that officials called for evacuations.
Some residents told the AP they had received text messages from authorities warning them of the coming storm. Others said they had received no notice. And with most of the city’s sirens concentrated in the downtown core, several neighborhoods have been left out.
The city did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the AP.
Fernando Araújo, 46, said the government had ignored his neighborhood of Vila Felipe for as long as he could remember.
“As a resident living here for 46 years, I’m sure as soon as the sun comes out and the weather stabilizes, they won’t come here and give us any more attention. People, by themselves, will clean up, rebuild, and in the future it will happen again.
Valverde, the former environmental regulator who set up the risk alert system, said many towns in the region lacked the political will to tackle the problem.
“They say they care, but when it comes time to make decisions, to remove houses in risky areas, to prevent new construction… they end up giving in,” he said. she stated.
“They need to be held accountable. Otherwise, it will happen again and again.
AP journalist Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report from Petropolis, and Débora Alvares from Brasilia.