NOVA FRIBURGO, Brazil – A year has passed since the tragedy caused by heavy rains in the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro, but the city that was hardest hit, Nova Friburgo, seems frozen in time.
Houses are still covered in mud and debris.
The gaping wound of a building destroyed by the January 2011 floods and mudslides remains open, as the structure partially collapsed, leaving the bathrooms of all the apartments exposed.
Entire streets are abandoned – residents were evacuated, and restoration work has yet to begin.
In many of Nova Friburgo’s neighborhoods, everything is exactly as it was one year ago.
“A lot of homes were condemned, and parts of the city look like something out of a horror movie, because the residents were forced to leave, and now, 12 months later, most of what remains has yet to be demolished,” says Gabriel Mafort, a 54-year-old businessman who helps victims in Nova Friburgo. “Some areas are abandoned and seem like war zones.”
Last year, Mafort opened his home to 30 neighbors for more than a week, in the neighborhood of Jardim Ouro Preto, which was not hit by the landslides but was flooded.
About 15 neighbors stayed for 20 days, and Mafort supplied water to the entire neighborhood. Since his home has a well, it was the only place where local residents could retrieve water while the city’s water system was being repaired.
“It’s impossible not to show solidarity during a disaster of that magnitude,” says Mafort, who then left behind his lingerie manufacturing business to help the victims of the 2011 disaster.
Now, Mafort offers management and accounting services to local daycare centers free of charge. He’s also allowed his home to be used as one of the Rain Support Centers – places officially designated safe by the Civil Defense agency, where residents could stay in the event of further flooding.
One year after the tragedy that killed 918 people and left 8,900 homeless across the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro, the victims have yet to receive the 5,000 homes promised by the state, which were to be paid for with federal funds.
The first batch of 550 houses and 60 commercial units is expected to be completed this year in the Caminho do Céu neighborhood, located in the Conselheiro Paulino district of Nova Friburgo.
Given that it began only a few days ago, the project is still in excavation phase at the 172,000-square-meter (42.5-acre) site.
“At the moment, there are only 15 workers for this stage of the project, but we should have 70 people working on the excavation and more than 1,000 building the homes,” says Édio Garcia, lead manager of construction company Odebrecht’s team.
In total, there will be 2,166 housing units built on the site. After 550 housing units are completed this year, the rest are expected to be finished in the second half of 2013, said Luiz Fernando Pezão, Rio’s lieutenant governor and state infrastructure coordinator.
Pezão says the delay was caused by difficulties surrounding the expropriation of the land.
“We surveyed more than 20 sites for building homes throughout the mountainous region. However, there’s a shortage of level terrain,” he says. “We also carried out a geological survey of 31 municipalities, and we’re going to work in partnership with the local governments to mitigate or eliminate the risk of landslides.”
One person who hopes to be given a new home in Caminho do Céu is 51-year-old machinist Valcenir Faria, a leader of the Floresta community group who lost his home during the heavy rains in January 2011.
“The only reason we’re not all dead is that we were at my mother’s wake, as she’d recently died from a heart attack,” he says. “It’s morbid, but she saved the whole family,” he says, referring to his children, brothers, sisters, nephews and in-laws.
Walking through Nova Friburgo, the contrasts are evident.
In certain areas, life goes on.
In others, time stopped on Jan. 12, 2011.
That is the scene at Juvenal Namen Street, in downtown Nova Friburgo, close to Getúlio Vargas Plaza, an area bustling with commerce. Six houses on this street were totally destroyed by landslides, and part of the Monte Carlo building was also swept away by landslides and flooding.
The building was condemned and residents were prevented from returning to their apartments to collect their belongings.
Six houses have been demolished. In the area where they once stood, the local government is in the process of completing retention walls, using sheets made of coconut and acai fibers, which prevent soil erosion that often leads to landslides.
But the former inhabitants of these residences have yet to reach an agreement with the municipal and state governments.
“Some of the houses here were worth half a million Brazilian reais (US$285,000),” says Sérgio Alexandre, a 25-year-old workplace safety specialist at Zadar, the company in charge of building the retention walls on the street. “One of them was worth over R$1million (US$570,000). The families are demanding those amounts, but it would be hard for the government to pay everyone. This is the same reason why the Monte Carlo building still hasn’t been demolished.”
Pending a solution to the impasse, some families are living with relatives, with others receiving a monthly rent stipend of up to R$500 (US$285) from the municipal government, with state funds, and others have rented or bought new homes, Alexandre adds.
The ghost streets of Duas Pedras
The neighborhood of Duas Pedras was one of the hardest hit by the tragedy. In the region, whole streets have been abandoned, and the houses left behind are like lifeless skeletons. One of them collapsed in the rains and is covered in graffiti that reads: “For Rent – No guarantor required,” “This side up” and “Great deal.”
The three cities hardest hit by the Jan. 2011 rains – Nova Friburgo, Teresópolis and Petrópolis – received R$24 million (US$13.7 million) in emergency funds, with R$10 million (US$5.7 million) allocated to Nova Friburgo, R$7 million (US$4 million) to Teresópolis and R$7 million to Petrópolis.
In the immediate aftermath of last year’s tragedy, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff also sent R$70 million (US$40 million) to the state of Rio de Janeiro.
Both Teresópolis and Nova Friburgo have gone through three different mayors since then and two of these former officials are being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry (CPI), the Office of the Comptroller General (CGU) and the Public Prosecutor’s Office for alleged improper use of state funds.
Former mayor of Nova Friburgo Demerval Barbosa was ousted in November. An inspection by the CGU discovered the local government had paid for cleaning services in schools that no longer existed, because they had also been destroyed by the rains. There are also suspicions of over-billing and payments made without proper bids.
In Teresópolis, during the administration of former mayor Jorge Mário, who was ousted from office on Aug. 2, 2011, investigations were launched based on accusations of no-bid contracts between businessmen and local officials.
With the help of the state and federal government, the new local administration continues to remove debris and rebuild roads in the affected areas in Teresópolis.
“Since the municipal budget is limited, we’re only able to meet the routine demands of the city,” says the acting mayor, former city council chairman Arlei Oliveira. “We’re seeking funds from the state and federal governments, though agreements, for projects to repair the damage and prevent future tragedies.”
The construction of 1,600 housing units is expected to begin in 15 days, in the neighborhood of Fazenda Hermitage, Oliveira says.
“We’re working to get the city back on track, but we have a lot to do, because the city was badly damaged with all of the confusion we went through,” he says, referring to the ouster of the former mayor, Jorge Mário, who was accused of corruption and embezzlement.
Overcoming fear to survive
Cimei Daniel, a 54-year-old resident of Nova Friburgo’s Córrego Dantas neighborhood, which was also affected by the tragedy, had his three-story home condemned by the Civil Defense agency.
Yet he still lives on the third floor and runs a small restaurant on the second floor.
The lower level, which he used to rent out, was completely flooded with rain and mud.
It remains that way to this day.
“Since I was only going to receive a rent stipend for my residence and not for the business, I decided to come back with my entire family, because we wouldn’t have any other way to survive,” he says. “I wasn’t going to leave behind everything my wife and I had built through 30 years of hard work. Even with the risks, I prefer to stay here.”
Gilberto Sader, who owns a store that sells homemade sweets in the Suspiro Plaza, one of the city’s tourist attractions, says he lost about R$400,000 (US$228,000) in merchandise and equipment because of the January 2011 rains.
On the day of the tragedy, mud and part of the hillside from a nearby mountain completely covered his shop.
“It took 40 days just to clean and tidy up the store – it was a swamp in here,” Sader says as he displays photographs of the immediate aftermath on his computer. “We lost a lot, but thank God we’re alive. On that day, I decided that I was going to fight to rebuild the business. And that’s what we’ve been doing on a daily basis.”
Sader says 80% of his business has yet to return. That’s because the area where his store is located depends on the revitalization of the Suspiro Plaza, which is ongoing.
“I believe that by March or April, the plaza should be reopened, with the small church, the cable car and the craft fair. Our business will come back,” he says. “You have to have hope, and you can’t just complain about the government. Nova Friburgo deserves to go back to what it was, and it will. I’m positive that we’ll never have rains like that again.”