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Brazzil - Tragedy - July 2004

Brazil: Picking Up the Pieces After Tragic Deluge

The Camará dam in the state of Paraíba, Brazil, was built two
years ago at a cost of US$ 6.5 million. It was supposed to have
cutting edge technology. But the first heavy rain brought it down,
causing 5 deaths, destroying 250 homes, and leaving homeless
close to 800 families, 300 of which are living in public buildings.

Spensy Pimentel

Picture On Thursday, June 17, early in the evening Miguel's battery-run radio began announcing warnings about the Camará dam on the Mamanguape River. The dam was breaking, floodwaters were on the way.

Miguel, like so many others, did not believe what he heard. So he walked outside, down to the riverbank to take a look. Everything looked normal. There was some fog on the river, he remembered, a little more than usual, that was all.

Miguel, his family and the town of Alagoa Grande, in the northeastern state of Paraíba, were literally in the dark: the electricity had gone off. That could have been seen as a sign of some trouble. But certainly not the enormous tragedy that was about to happen.

In another home, Ligia got a phone call warning her of danger. She lived alone with her mother and had not been listening to the radio. She was taken by surprise. She did not believe there was a serious problem.

"This river always comes and goes, it is up and down all the time," she thought.

Ligia's disbelief was short lived. Very short lived. Quickly water was coming into her home from all sides. "Come along," she cried as she grabbed her old mother. "The good Jesus is so far away and we're going to have to save ourselves."

In yet another house, Maria de Lourdes was already in bed. She heard her neighbors screaming for her to leave the house. When she got out of bed the water was knee high.

Outside it was roaring down the street. Along with Miguel, Maria de Lourdes escaped by scampering up a hillside just behind their houses. It was the highest point in town. The only place the waters did not cover.

Meanwhile, Ligia and her mother climbed on top of their home. The rushing waters carried Ligia to one side of the roof and her mother to the other side where the old lady disappeared.

"I just never thought she would die this way. I knew the end was near, she was 83, but I never expected anything like this," said a stunned Ligia.

The mother, Palmira Rocha da Silva, was one of the five people who died when the Camará dam burst in Alagoa Grande, population around 30,000, which lies 140 kilometers inland from the state capital of João Pessoa, in the Northeastern state of Paraíba.

The town is located in an area of rolling hills that receive abundant rainfall. The hillsides are dotted with mud huts where poor farmers live, tending small cornfields and raising farm animals.

But the dominant feature is the sugarcane, rippling in the breeze like water on the ocean (according to the Brazilian poet, João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-99), who wrote knowingly of the Northeast and its sugarcane fields). The sugarcane is used to make sugar or ethanol. The sugarcane fields belong to people who own huge sugarmills and often live far away.

Widespread Destruction

Around 250 homes in Alagoa Grande were destroyed by the floodwaters. Almost 800 families were left homeless. At least 300 of those families have now been forced to live in local public buildings, such as schools. Some 100 commercial establishments lost goods and equipment.

Besides Alagoa Grande, the waters roared through another town, Mulungu, where there was even more destruction. The state government estimates the total damage at US$ 9.8 million (30 million reais).

All of this was caused when the Camará dam burst and spilt 17 million cubic meters of water downstream. The dam cost US$6.5 million ($20 million reaus) and was supposedly built with cutting edge technology.

"We were demolished," is the way the survivors describe what happened. Ligia, who is unemployed and lived on her mother's pension of a minimum wage (260 reais—US$ 87), does not know what to do.

Miguel, born in Alagoa Grande, had just returned from Rio de Janeiro where he had gone seeking a better life that he did not find. And Maria de Lourdes: "I managed to save my cow," she says proudly, "even though I lost my house." The house, she explains, was paid for by her ex-husband. It cost four head of cattle and a donkey.

These are people with few illusions regarding human generosity. They now see fierce struggles take place as local inhabitants dispute food baskets, clothes and other items sent by charities and government agencies.

"We know that almost everyone here is needy, but we have to make sure that this aid reaches the people who were victims of the flood," explains Gerlane Cruz Nunes, 40, a school teacher in Alagoa Grande who came through the tragedy unscathed and is now a volunteer in the distribution of assistance.

Gerlane stands in the doorway of a school as she speaks and as she speaks a group of about 40 women begin pushing their way into the school where donated items are temporarily stockpiled. "Please, there is so much," they plead.

"There is enough for everyone. We are also needy. Just let us get a few things," says one of them.

The most urgent need is home reconstruction. Ligia explains the problem: "During the day I'm ok. But at night, having to sleep in somebody else's house, it is terrible. There is nothing worse."

There is also a need to find out why what happened happened. "Some people say the government is to blame. They built the dam too quickly and now we have to pay the price," complains Miguel.

"The engineer is responsible and should pay the damages," exclaims Maria de Lourdes.

Ligia is a disbeliever: "You just cannot trust people, that's all. You can only trust God. Believing in people is a waste of time. One day they promise one thing, and the next they do something else."

Spensy Pimentel works for Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government. Comments are welcome at
Translated from the Portuguese by Allen Bennett.

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