Martina Liebsch, Director of Policy for Caritas Internationalis, traveled to Brazil in June to attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. She also visited a Caritas project in the region and reports back on Caritas’ efforts to help flood survivors.
“In my 67 years I have not seen something like this,” says a woman in Brazil whose house was destroyed during powerful floods in January 2011. She now lives in a modest house with her sister, who takes care of her.
The deadly mixture of heavy rains filling the rivers and fatal landslides damaged the city of Nova Friburgo and fertile land nearby. Worst hit was San Jose do vale do Rio Preto, where some of the houses are literally standing in the river. Today those houses that still stand are damaged and inhabitable, though the rivers that caused the damage now look very small and innocent.
Although the disaster happened over a year ago, the signs of devastation are still apparent. The director of Caritas Nova Friburgo showed us the place right behind Caritas where a landslide stripped off part of an apartment building and damaged the Caritas building.
Once you are sensitized you suddenly realize that the landscape is full of these scars: signs of erosion and places where parts of the hill just came down, destroying buildings or damaging them so much that the authorities declared them inhabitable. Climate change is more and more visible and we have to get prepared for these kinds of emergencies happening more often.
According to official figures, 25,000 people lost their houses because of the disaster. Churches opened their buildings and hosted affected people as a temporary solution. Then people started to move in with family members—or, if they had nowhere else to go, back into their damaged houses in spite of the danger.
A Caritas colleague in Nova Friburgo, himself affected by the emergency, is upset as he talks about the ongoing situation. There are still 7000 people without proper shelter or new housing, and many feel that corruption and bureaucracy are hindering the construction of new houses.
In a valley near Nova Friburgo, small scale farmers produce the vegetables necessary to feed the population of Rio. During the floods, mud and water streaming down from the hills covered the fields and the crops were destroyed. Those who lived there thought they would need at least a year or more to get back on track, but in fact, it only took them 5 months; the valley looks as if nothing has ever happened there. Jose Magalhães, emergency coordinator of Caritas Brazil, explained that people there were lucky. Banks were more inclined to give loans to restore houses and business, and get farmers back to production so they could feed the people of Rio. A men living in the area said: “We helped each other a lot, used our different skills and identified those who would need assistance from Caritas and other organizations.”
Before the flood hit, Caritas Nova Friburgo had been inactive for some years. But the disaster mobilized them and it was decided to bring this Caritas member back to life. Emergency shelters and meeting places were identified and events about disaster risk reduction were held.
In a place called Teresópolis, the Catholic group “Presença Samaritana” is responding to over 4700 people who still need help and have not been able to recover fully. With funding from the Caritas network, they are giving families food baskets, as well as vouchers they can use to “buy” clothes.
Though people in the area are frustrated about construction delays and other problems, help from Caritas has made the flood aftermath a little easier for them to bear. “I have nothing to complain about my life,” says the lady who was lucky enough to get alternative shelter. “I’ve always been treated well and helped.”