Brazil: Red Cross responds to worst mudslides in 40 years

18 January 2011

By Camila Morais and Sadia Kaenzig

Inhabitants of Nova Friburgo - a town in the mountainous area north of Rio de Janeiro - awoke early on the morning of Wednesday 12 January to a strange knocking sound. Looking out of their windows, they were confronted with a terrifying scene: sludge and debris floating down flooded streets, and bursting into homes.

"It happened really fast. We didn't have time to get anything. Our house has been completely destroyed, but the good thing is that our lives are spared," said one woman, who was lucky enough to be evacuated from one of the worst-affected areas in Nova Friburgo.

The rain that has been blighting the region since Tuesday night has brought widespread devastation to Nova Friburgo and neighbouring cities. Thousands of people are trapped and stranded; houses and cars are buried in mud or at risk of being swept down hillsides; and water has surged and flooded urban areas, threatening hundreds of homes in lower-lying districts.

Heavy mudslides have blocked roads, so rescuers are forced to use boats to reach people cut off by the floods. The disaster has prompted the governor of Rio de Janeiro to declare a state of emergency in the municipalities of Nova Friburgo, Teresópolis, Petrópolis, Bom Jardim, São José do Vale do Rio Preto, Sumidouro and Areal in the north of Rio de Janeiro.

"It's a mess! The mud-flow swept away houses; it moved cars - picking them up, standing them on their ends at 45-degree angles, and burying them. The ground is so saturated and unstable, it could shift at any time and the risk will remain for several weeks," says Carmen Serra, spokeswoman for the Brazilian Red Cross.

Last Saturday, the national civil defence authority (Secretaria Nacional de Defesa Civil) reported 613 deaths, with 50 people still missing. Rescue teams continue their search for survivors. Overall, some 13,400 people have been affected - 6,050 people have been made homeless and 7,680 people have had to be evacuated.

Since Wednesday, the Brazilian Red Cross - together with the IFRC and ICRC - has been working alongside government authorities in search and rescue activities, and in first aid.

Public support has been crucial to the Brazilian Red Cross response. Local donations have enabled the Brazilian Red Cross to deliver large quantities of relief items to affected communities with more than 500 tonnes of items donated. The Red Cross has also mobilized 3,000 volunteers, many of whom are working round the clock to provide relief to affected communities.