Brazil: Floods leave thousands of children homeless in Alagoas and Pernambuco

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By Márcia Rodrigues - Special reporter for UNICEF with Pedro Ivo Alcantara

The heavy floods that have been battering the states of Alagoas and Pernambuco since June 17th have left a huge trail of destruction. Exact figures as to the number of children affected are not yet available, but authorities estimate that over 150,000 people have been left homeless. So far, the official death toll is 44, with 600 reported missing.

Both states are located in Northeastern Brazil, one of the regions with the highest social vulnerability indicators in the country.

In Pernambuco, 55 municipalities have been severely affected. In Alagoas the number reached 18.

In response, the Alagoas and Pernambuco governments - with the support of the federal government - have been implementing several measures to help families affected by the floods. The federal government has released funds for the rescuing of victims, the building of houses and small businesses destroyed by the floods, in addition to sending out teams to support the population and supplies such as food, "sleeping kits" (mattresses, pillows, towels), staple food parcels and other essential items. At this point, Brazilian government wants to ensure that food, water and electricity are provided to the affected families. In a gesture of solidarity, many Brazilians are also helping the efforts by giving donations and sending supplies and other essential items to the communities.

UNICEF has been monitoring the situation in these municipalities and helping to disseminate information on the official collection points for donations. At the same time, UNICEF has been in contact with the civil defense authorities, at both national and state levels.

Anticipated school vacations - In Pernambuco, in the most affected municipalities, such as Barreiros and Palmares, in the southern part of the state, in the Zona da Mata region, school vacations have been anticipated, according to information from the State Secretariat for Education publicized on Wednesday, June 23rd, as many families are still being sheltered in the municipal schools.

In Vitória de Santo Antão, the traditional June celebrations have been cancelled. Rainfall has left about 270 people homeless in the municipality. Most have already returned home, gradually resuming normal life with the help of donations that have been reaching the town.

One of the several schools of the Matadouro district - the Major Manoel Fortunato Municipal School - has provided shelter to families that have lost everything, including their homes. On Wednesday, June 23rd, ten families were being sheltered at the school.

One such family is that of Andresa Maria de Santana, 25, five months pregnant and the mother of four children, one boy and three girls. Andresa used to live in the Dr. Bida district which, like the Dr. Alvinho district, has been flooded by the Tapacurá River. She is a beneficiary of the Federal Government's Family Grant program, being paid R$ 134,00 per month, since all of her children are in school. Her family shares the classroom with the family of Aldemir José dos Santos, 25, whose 8-month old son is sick with pneumonia. Seven families share the next door classroom. Six children are housed there, including a 2-month old baby.

The stories of those who are back home - Lower Dr. Alvinho district, in Vitória de Santo Antão, was one of the municipalities that was the hardest hit by the floods of the Tapacurá River, which overflowed after the last rain.

However, many residents decided to return to their homes the next day. That is the case of Mirian de Oliveira Mendonça, 39, who shares the house with two sons, aged 19 and 9, and a daughter-in-law, who is 5-months pregnant. A resident of the district's main street, Dona Mirian says that she was rescued and taken to a nearby shelter the night the river overflowed. Despite being well built, her house does not even have a bathroom, nor running water. As soon as the waters started to recede, she decided to go back, she said.

"I lost my clothes, refrigerator, beds, I only have a mattress and a table that was given to me yesterday", reports the cleaning woman. While she cleans her house and other furniture, she is staying at a friend's house, in the nearby Amparo district.

Somewhat down the road, on the same street, lives Josineide Maria da Conceição, 36, and her five children. Her oldest son is 18 and the youngest, 10. The family lost everything in the floods. They all share a small house, with only three rooms which, on the night of the heavy rain, was totally engulfed by the water. So far, the family is using only two donated mattresses for sleeping. She does not work and, like other people affected by the floods, receives the Federal Government's Family Grant and all her children go to school.

The northeast region, with one of the worst social indicators in the country, has been severely affected by floods. In 2009, flooding killed at least 44 people and displaced thousands in the same region.

Due to the vulnerability of children and adolescents in the region, starting 2005, UNICEF has been implementing the UNICEF Municipal Seal of Approval, a program based on social mobilization aimed at guaranteeing the rights of children and adolescents in the Brazilian Semi-arid region.

Municipalities enrolled in the program are committed to planning and developing actions in order to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and specific targets in education, health, protection, development and the social participation of children and adolescents.

UNICEF promotes capacity building for the different players in order to encourage and guide their participation in the drafting and strengthening of public policies for boys and girls up to 17 years of age; it monitors and evaluates the performance of municipalities based on a given set of social indicators; and certifies and acknowledges the efforts made by the municipalities that make the greatest progress in promoting improved living conditions for children and adolescents.

By mobilizing both public managers and the population at large, the Seal methodology has been helping to improve major indicators associated with childhood and adolescence. The results achieved so far in the Semi-Arid include reducing mortality rates among children less than one year of age. From 2004 to 2006, this indicator dropped 15.2% in municipalities in regions that have been certified by UNICEF. The national average reduction in this indicator during the same period was 3.1%.

In parallel, UNICEF is engaged in the development of disaster risk reduction plans, which include preparing children and families for such emergency conditions.

For more information

Estela Caparelli,, UNICEF Brazil

Tamar Hahn,, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean