More than 100 municipalities have announced states of emergency. The Minas Gerais state government has committed nearly $80 million to address the fallout.
“My priority is the security of the Minas Gerais people!” Gov. Romeu Zema tweeted. President Jair Bolsonaro might soon visit the devastated community.
On Wednesday, people assessed the damage and shared video of the destruction on social media. One video showed an underground canal exploding like a string of geysers. Another featured well-dressed Brazilians looking out from a tony restaurant as the street outside became a river, carrying away cars and debris. Another showed the collapse of a shopping mall roof.
In a country perennially drenched by rains at this time of year, the scenes were painfully familiar, particularly in Minas Gerais. Last year, during these same sodden January weeks, a tailings dam in the town of Brumadinho burst, killing more than 250 people in what’s considered the worst mining disaster in the country’s history.
Now, as the rains in Belo Horizonte pick up again, at twice the average January rate, there’s widespread concern over what tragedy could befall the state next — and which part of the population will bear the brunt of it.
“It is undeniable that global warming and social inequality are causing the poor to live more precariously,” leftist congressman Paulo Teixeira tweeted.
Social inequality is baked into Brazil’s urban landscape. Descendants of slaves and other poor migrants, unable to find housing in the cities, have historically been shunted into the communities known as favelas. Unregulated and impromptu, they spill across urban hillsides in hues of orange and gray, perched atop unsteady terrain, overlooking sheer drop-offs.
This feature of urban life has aggravated the annual scourge of deadly landslides, especially in the country’s heavily populated southeast, where studies have shown the threat of mudslides is greatest.
“In Brazil, these events are a great concern,” researchers with the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics wrote last year. “The dynamic of how the land is used, often in a disorderly fashion, increases the likelihood of these events and worsens their impacts.”
The government also plays a role. News reports show state and federal governments have consistently failed to meet funding goals to help mitigate the damage wrought by the annual problem. In Rio de Janeiro, which the geography institute called the city with the highest chance of devastating landslides, the amount of funding to prevent flooding has fallen by more than two-thirds since 2017.
Between 2000 and 2017, more than 6.4 million people were displaced by landslides, floods and storms, according to the Brazilian think tank Igarapé Institute. That’s an average of more than 350,000 a year.
In Belo Horizonte, the newest victims were trying to understand how so much in their life had suddenly changed. Residents in one poor neighborhood of Vila Ideal, on the outskirts of the city, picked through the detritus of their former lives over the weekend, trying to make sense of it.
“She was my oldest daughter,” one mother, Elisangela Pinto Souza, 41, told a local newspaper, O Tempo. “I stayed here until the early morning, hoping to find her. Now I’ve returned this morning. The firefighters were taking too long.”
Later that day came the news she’d been dreading.
“They found her, unfortunately, lifeless,” she told O Tempo.
One displaced woman in Belo Horizonte told The Washington Post a three-foot-high flood swept through her house, destroying nearly everything. All it left behind, Bárbara Ferrarezi said, was mud and a terrible smell of fish in a home where she’d lived for more than a decade.
She said she didn’t have any insurance.
“We are going to try to recover,” Ferrarezi said. “But everything was lost.”