Dozens die as heavy rain leaves Rio in shambles Toll rises as mudslides topple shacks from hills

officials' inaction cursed

February 15, 1996|By Knight-Ridder News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Several dozens died -- among them eight children -- with smashed skulls or smothered under falling LTC mud and trash. Shacks slipped from cliffs. Whole neighborhoods were blocked off, leaving thousands stranded, and scores of schools and businesses closed.

The culprit: rain -- nearly 12 inches in some parts of the city on Tuesday alone.

The worst storm in 25 years left the "Marvelous City" in chaos yesterday, with residents stalled in traffic, stumbling in the dark and cursing officials who have acknowledged their helplessness to stem the devastation.

"We must pray," was Rio Mayor Cesar Maia's advice, after heavy rains last month blocked streets and caused blackouts.

Since the start of summer in the Southern Hemisphere in late December, at least 124 people have died throughout Brazil in rain-related accidents. This week's storms proved the deadliest, with 52 confirmed dead yesterday in Rio de Janeiro state, and the toll mounting.

With Carnival set to begin Friday, and city government and businesses preparing to shut down, the forecast is for more heavy rain. Residents are scanning their gray skies with dread.

As in other crowded Third World cities with overtaxed infrastructures, and millions living in precarious shacks on unstable ground, big storms have become almost routinely lethal.

Tuesday's rains took their toll as well in the business center of Sao Paulo, with at least 14 reported dead, but the misery and chaos in Brazil's showcase city was causing the most dismay.

"Rio became a no man's land," said the daily newspaper Jornal do Brasil.

An editorial at the paper complained that official neglect had left "millions of citizens, without guidance, like fleeing cockroaches, at the time they most need a comforting word from authorities."

In the wake of Mr. Maia's comment last month, one councilman sued the mayor under city laws making him responsible for the city's upkeep.

"Our Lady of Fatima and Saint Jorge, to whom he said he would turn to avoid flooding, weren't elected to city hall," said the councilman, Antonio Pitanga.

During seven hours of rain Tuesday morning, traffic stalled as the city's picture-postcard Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon flooded over, turning the palm tree-lined Jardim Botanico street into a muddy brown river.

Rio state Gov. Marcello Alencar was trapped in his house, while Rio's vice mayor reportedly ended up stuck in traffic, fielding calls on his cellular phone, outside a bakery en route to his office.

As usual, the hardest hit were the poor, especially residents of thousands of shanties sprawled atop the city's majestic mountains.

Yesterday, city rescue workers dug victims from the mud.

One resident told neighbors that his last glimpse of his pregnant wife was watching her slide through the mud atop a sofa.

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