RIO DE JANEIRO — The rains won’t relent.
For days, they’ve pulverized southeast Brazil, leading to widespread flooding, torrents of mudslides, dozens of dead and thousands of homeless.
Now they’re back again — with more on the way.
After another round of battering rains and landslides Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the death toll has risen to 62 across the states of Espirito Santo and Minas Gerais, where waves of mud have knocked houses off cliffs and buried dozens of people alive, particularly in the capital city of Belo Horizonte.
More than 100 municipalities across the state have announced a state of emergency, with the state government committing nearly $80 million to address the fallout.
“My priority is the security of the Minas Gerais people!” state Gov. Romeu Zema tweeted. President Jair Bolsonaro may soon visit the devastated community.
On Wednesday, people assessed the damage and shared videos of scenes of destruction on social media. One showed an underground river canal exploding like a series of geysers. Another depicted well-dressed Brazilians looking out from a tony restaurant as the street outside morphed into a river, carrying cars and other debris. There was also a video depicting 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 the state of 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 pick up in Belo Horizonte again, doubling the average January rate, there is 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 the Brazilian urban landscape. Unable to find housing in the cities, descendants of slaves and other poor migrants have historically been shunted into 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 are greatest.
“In Brazil, these events are a great concern,” wrote researchers with the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in an extensive study published 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 that state and federal governments have consistently failed to meet funding goals to help mitigate the potential of the annual problem. In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, 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, according to the Brazilian think tank Igarape Institute, more than 6.4 million people have been displaced as a result of landslides, floods and storms — 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, Bárbara Ferrarezi, told The Washington Post that a 3-foot-high flood swept through her house, destroying nearly everything. All it left behind was mud and a terrible smell of fish in a house where she’d lived for more than a decade.
“We are going to try to recover,” she said, explaining that she didn’t have any insurance. “But everything was lost.”