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Why Brazil Can't Stop Its Killer Landslides

For one grandfather, disaster has struck again -- 30 years later.

Victims of the 2011 landslide in the State of Rio de Janeiro
Victims of the 2011 landslide in the State of Rio de Janeiro
Lucas Vettorazzo, Fabio Brisolla and Benceslau Borlina

RIO DE JANEIRO - About thirty years ago, a young construction worker named Jamil Luminato was hailed as a hero for saving victims from landslides in Petrópolis, in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro.

A dramatic photograph of him carrying a dead baby appeared on the front page of the Jornal do Brasil newspaper.

Last Monday, Luminato, now 53, was the grieving victim: his own grown daughter, Drucilane, 31 and two grandsons Rodrigo, 4, and João, 2, died in a similar landslide that has killed at least 28 victims and left 4,000 people homeless. Four others are still missing.

In mountaineous areas around Rio, landslides are all too common. Two years ago, more than 900 people died in the tourist mecca of Nova Friburgo, which was turned into a sea of mud, rubbish and dead bodies during a disastrous landslide.

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Petrópolis by lmgadelha

Brazil's government has failed to remove residents from endangered zones, such as homes built on steep hillsides and along rivers. “We know it is a risk area. But where could we go? We can't buy an apartment,” says Luminato.

Other people living in the area say they face the same situation. Since 2011, sirens have been installed to alert the population in case of landslide danger. Still, many people refuse to leave their homes for fear of being burglarized.

Still waiting

In recent years, more resources have been devoted to preventing rain related disasters, but bureaucracy has limited progress. Only one-third of total funds made avaliable by the federal government reached its final destination, government officials say.

In order to receive the funds, states and cities must present plans that outline the repair work or other projects related to preventing future disasters. This is the point where most of them fail and the money never gets assigned.

Petrópolis is on the list of places that were still waiting for safety improvements. So far none of the promised houses for people left homeless in 2011 are ready -- and much of the money was not even allocated. In total, 5.7 billion reals ($2.85 billion) were made avaliable for disaster prevention, but less than half had been spent by the end of 2012.

After the 28 deaths this week, Rio de Janeiro's government announced an aid package of 3 million reals ($1.5 million) for Petrópolis. Whether it is spent wisely or not, nothing can bring back Jamil Luminato's loved ones.

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