- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — At least 200 people were buried and feared dead under the latest landslide to hit a slum in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, authorities said Thursday.

If confirmed, the deaths would raise the toll sharply from the 153 people already known to have died this week in slides triggered by record rains.

Pedro Machado, subsecretary of Rio state’s Civil Defense Department, told Globo TV that as many as 60 houses and at least 200 people were buried in the Morro Bumba slum in Niteroi, which neighbors Rio.

“In our experience, it’s an instant death” for those caught in their homes at the time, Mr. Machado said.

Mr. Machado said the shantytown was built on a mountain of trash that accumulated for decades, making the ground there unstable and vulnerable to giving way.

Sergio Cortes, Rio state health secretary, said that when he climbed the hill where the landslide took place, “I could see I was standing above garbage.”

“The residents began to say there was a landfill there that had not been used for more than 20 years, and that the houses were built there,” Mr. Cortes said.

A fire department spokesman said six bodies had been found so far in the Morro Bumba and 28 were rescued after the mudslide hit late Wednesday.

Alves Souza, commander of the firefighters in the Niteroi rescue operations, said the wet, steep terrain posed a continued threat to anyone trapped in the wreckage and to emergency crews as well.

“The work is very intense, given the fact that the volume of material we have here is very large,” Mr. Souza said.

Record rainfall since Monday afternoon has triggered deadly mudslides across the Rio area.

Firefighters said the official death toll stands at 153, but that does not include those buried in Morro Bumba.

Nearly all the deaths occurred in mudslides that smashed through slums — yet another reminder that life in one of the world’s most famous playgrounds is much different for the poor than for the rich.

Residents of the shantytowns often endure dangers such as the frequent shootouts between police and heavily armed drug gangs, and when heavy rain falls on slopes crowded with poorly built shacks, nature itself can deal out death.

Rio officials said they are going to step up forced evictions of slum residents living in at-risk areas.

Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that 1,500 families were going to be removed from their homes in at least two Rio slums and that more evictions were likely.

“I don’t want to spend next summer sleepless, worrying if the rains are going to kill somebody,” he told reporters, without saying when the relocations would take place.

The heavy rains plunged Rio into chaos this week, knocking down trees and power lines, opening up enormous craters in streets and sending wastewater flowing down to the city’s white sand beaches, and it was nearly impossible to get anywhere in this city of 6 million people.

In the Rocinha slum, officials said 16 inches of rain has fallen so far this month — three times the amount normally expected for all of April. Similar figures were seen across the Rio area.

Rio state Civil Defense said at least 11,000 people were forced from their homes. Officials said potential mudslides threatened at least 10,000 houses in the city.

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