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Page last updated at 21:33 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 22:33 UK

Rio's shanty town dwellers pick up the pieces

Rescuers dig through the mud at the Morro dos Prazeres shanty town
The mudslides hit Rio's poorest areas hardest

By Paulo Cabral
BBC News, Rio de Janeiro

Often the poorest favelas in Rio have the prettiest names. Morro dos Prazeres, for example, means Hill of Pleasures but it seemed sadly misnamed in the wake of the landslides that left at least 15 people dead in this shanty town.

The hills all over the city are part of Rio de Janeiro's beauty but the unstable soil that covers them can be a recipe for disaster when there is heavy rainfall.

Landslides happen almost every rainy season but the level of rainfall and the scale of destruction seen this time are unparalleled in living memory.

"I have been living here for 37 years and of course we know we are at risk in this area. But I have never seen anything like this," said Silvio de Oliveira, a private security agent.

Most of the people who died in Rio de Janeiro and its surrounding cities - including Niteroi, in the greater Rio area, the place with the highest number of fatalities - were those who lived in the shanty towns that cling precariously to the hillsides overlooking the city.

High risk

Both President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Rio's governor, Sergio Cabral, said that part of the blame for the death toll lies with people continuing to build in areas known to be high risk.

"I know it is not easy but we need to take these people out of these high risk areas, it doesn't matter what," the president said.

Rescuers dig into the mud which engulfed homes in Rio de Janeiro
Rescuers used whatever tools they could get their hands on

But, in Morro dos Prazeres, people do not seem to think that would be possible.

"Of course I would like to go and live somewhere else, but how?" responds Mr de Oliveira.

"Ask anybody and they'll all say the same - we just don't have money to buy a proper house."

He was among the many people watching the firefighters searching for the unaccounted, those possibly buried under the mud in his favela.

Many others, not content to remain on the sidelines, took whatever tools they had available - some even used their own hands - to try and find victims, this despite rescue teams complaining that the presence of so many people could actually make the situation more dangerous.

"Actually, the people from this community were the first to attend to this disaster and try and help the victims. The firefighters only arrived many hours later," said Luis Odison, a self-employed local resident. "The rescue works that started this morning should have been going on since last night," he added.

'Afraid'

The federal government has sent helicopters and rescue teams to Rio from other states to help with the searches but even so it doesn't seem to be enough for the scale of the disaster. To make things worse, it is also very dangerous to try to rescue people from landslides.

Map

The rain is now intermittent rather than intense but the soil remains extremely wet and therefore prone to fresh landslides.

Mr Odison lives in a house a little further downhill from where the landslide happened in Morro dos Prazeres.

"I'm afraid the authorities will condemn my house and tell me to leave," he tells me. "I don't know what I would do if that happened." He says he cares little whether Rio de Janeiro has the capacity to host games of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

"What I want is politicians to stop worrying about World Cup or Olympics and think a bit more about the needs of the people who live here," he said.



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Flood-hit Rio tackles aftermath
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In pictures: Rio de Janeiro clean-up
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Storms kill at least 18 in Brazil
31 Dec 09 |  Americas
Country profile: Brazil
14 Aug 12 |  Country profiles


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