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Slum disappears in Rio de Janeiro mudslide; 200 buried, feared dead
NITEROI, Brazil -- They are all gone. The Evangelical church where worshippers were praying. A day care center where children were playing. The pizza parlor where a family was eating.
All were buried under a mountain of mud, garbage and stone when yet another landslide hit metropolitan Rio de Janeiro late Wednesday. This one swept through the Morro do Bumba slum, engulfing as many as 200 people and 60 homes. Nothing was left behind but a massive crater of sodden earth and the remnants of flimsy brick shacks.
"I had just picked up my 10-year-old son from the day care. We walked down the hill to the street, and within 10 minutes, my community collapsed," said Patricia Faria, 28, crying as she watched heavy machinery dump the remains of her life into a waiting truck. "All I have left is what you see on me -- and my son. Thank God, I have my son."
Rio state health secretary Sergio Cortes said it was hard to say how many people were buried in the latest slide. "A worst-case scenario is 200," he said. "We know that about 60 houses were buried."
Already 161 people have been confirmed dead in the heavy rains that began Monday in Rio, most of them swept away in landslides that roared through city slums built on steep, unstable hillsides.
The death toll surpasses that of flooding and mudslides in the southern state of Santa Catarina in 2008, which killed nearly 130 people and displaced about 80,000.
"In our experience, it's an instant death," Pedro Machado, undersecretary of Rio state's Civil Defense department, said of the victims buried by landslides.
Faria said she was certain people were buried inside the Morro Bumba slum's Assembly of God church, which collapsed during nightly services.
Clesio Araujo, 39, said he narrowly escaped the slide, leaving a pizza parlor just a few minutes before the earth gave way. He said a family was still inside.
The destruction was compounded because the slum is largely built atop an old garbage dump, making it especially unstable and vulnerable to the heavy rains, said Agostinho Guerreiro, president of Rio's main association of engineers and architects.
"It is very fragile soil. It couldn't hold. The houses came down, destroying the ones below them," Guerreiro told Globo TV. "It was a tragedy foretold."
The federal government announced an emergency fund of $114 million to help Rio state, where the slum is located, to deal with the mudslides and flooding.
But the money will be of little help to people who have no choice but to live in such precarious sections of the city, said Rosana Fernandes, 43, whose sister, brother-in-law and two young nieces were buried under the mud.
Holding a faded photo of the smiling family, she didn't bother holding back the tears as she explained what it is that leads families to live atop a landfill formed by decades of accumulated garbage.
"Yes, it was a dump. But people are desperate to have a home anywhere," she said. "What else were they going to do? Where else were they supposed to go? This is our reality. They knew the risks, but when you have no money, you have no choice," she said.
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 are going to be removed from their homes in at least two Rio slums, and that more evictions are likely.
Officials from Rio state's Civil Defense department said that at least 14,000 people were forced from their homes by the mudslides and that potential slides threatened at least 10,000 other houses in the city.
On Thursday, scores of rescue workers poked at the massive mountain of earth that slid down the hills of the Morro Bumba slum toward a paved road in Niteroi, Rio's sister city of 500,000 people across the Guanabara Bay.
Mounds of soil and garbage rose 40 feet (12 meters) high. A dozen dump trucks were lined up to carry off the debris. Hundreds of onlookers watched as firefighters carried at least four coffins out of the crater created by the slide.
Homeless residents sought shelter in two Evangelical churches just down the road from the slum, where water, food and clothing were handed out. Small children played and slept on dozens of mattresses laid out on church floors.
Niteroi recovery operations were moving slowly: The wet, steep terrain posed a continued threat to anyone trapped in the wreckage and to emergency crews as well, said lead firefighter Alves Souza.
"The work is very intense, given the fact that the volume of material we have here is very large," Souza said.
While it rained only lightly Thursday, the forecast was for heavier rains later in the day and throughout the weekend.
Associated Press Writer Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.