At least 104 people are dead after violent floods and mudslides swept through the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday. Searches for victims are still underway, as residents and firefighters try to find those who may still be trapped in the mud.
The mudslides were particularly damaging for the city Petrópolis. Known as the “Imperial City,” Petrópolis is nestled in the mountains just north of Rio de Janeiro’s golden beaches. Unfortunately, it was also in the direct path of the torrent. More than 10 inches of heavy rain triggered a deluge of water and mud to run down from the peaks. The force of the mudslides swept away houses and cars, completely wiping out a huge portion of the city. While 104 deaths have already been confirmed, at least 35 people are still missing, and at least 400 people have lost their houses.
“We don’t yet know the full scale of this,” said Rubens Bomtempo, mayor of Petrópolis, according to NPR. “It was a hard day, a difficult day.”
The rains that triggered these mudslides were far from normal. Rio de Janeiro Gov. Cláudio Castro told The Washington Post that it was “the greatest rain since 1932”—a rare catastrophe that is difficult to predict and prevent.
But for many, this disaster brings flashbacks of the 2011 mudslides that afflicted the same region and killed more than 900 people. In 2011, Carlos Minc, then Rio de Janeiro’s state environment secretary, told The New York Times that “the next rain will destroy everything that still remains…We do not have time for contemplation.”
In the aftermath of 2011, it looked like Brazilian officials were going to take measures to prevent future flooding events, but progress has been slow. Deforestation, poor infrastructure, and a haphazardly expanded population has left communities in the region still vulnerable—and climate change will also likely increase the frequency of extreme weather events.
Heavy rains and flooding are becoming more common in other Brazilian regions as well. A community of Indigenous Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe peoples in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, just north of Rio de Janeiro, have once again lost their homes. The banks of the Paraopeba River overflowed last month, sweeping away Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe houses, forcing them to flee for the second time in three years.
Increasingly heavy rainfall means that displaced Indigenous communities will likely be unable to return to their homes, for fear of future dangerous disasters. Also the presence of heavy metals and other pollutants in the water makes the area especially hazardous when flooded.
The city of Petrópolis has yet to fully assess the damage, and so it’s too soon to tell what best course of action to take—whether to rebuild the city or relocate. It is “very complicated, even to understand the alterations happening in the territory,” Mayor Bomtempo said to The Washington Post. “Up to now, we don’t have a definitive dimension” of how the disaster impacted the land.