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Rio Searches for Bodies, Answers

February 16, 1996

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Brazilians pulled bodies from the muck Thursday and looked for someone to blame for mudslides that killed at least 71 people, many in hillside shantytowns of handmade shacks.

The body of a young boy was found under mounds of garbage in the shantytown of Cidade de Deus, or City of God, in Rio. In nearby Sitio do Pai Joao, civil defense workers pulled two more bodies from the red mud that buried shacks.

Twelve people were still missing in Cidade de Deus, civil defense officials said. Residents said there were twice that many. About one-fifth of Rio’s 6 million people live in its 660 slums, but few have an address.

The sun came out Thursday after the heaviest rains in a quarter-century buffeted Brazil’s southeastern coast for two days and caused the Rio Grande river to overflow.

Cidade de Deus residents blamed Rio mayor Cesar Maia, saying flooding could have been avoided if the city had dredged the river. Heavy summer rains caused 100 deaths in similar tragedies in 1966, 1967 and 1988.

Maia, however, blamed the victims for refusing to evacuate. ``They resist,″ he said. ``We remove them and they go back.″

Joel Portela, a Roman Catholic priest, recalled how residents sat marveling at rainbow halos above water cascading down a slope. The slope then crashed down, killing at least 17.

``They should have spent their time evacuating, but they didn’t know the danger they were in,″ Portela said.

Capt. Pedro Machado of the Rio fire department said slum residents ``cut into the hillside to build a shack, but there’s no drainage and the sewage seeps into the ground. It creates a layer of rotten earth that falls away in a rain.″

Shacks in high-risk areas would be demolished, fire department officials said.

Rio’s secretary of urban planning, Luiz Paulo Conde, blamed drug traffickers who control the slums and refuse to allow city workers to reforest the bare hillsides.

The rainfall in the hardest-hit areas of Rio was a record 12 inches Tuesday and Wednesday. The normal average rainfall in Rio for February is 6.4 inches.

In the hillside slum of Rocinha, Latin America’s largest with some 250,000 residents, at least 12 people were buried.

In the interior of Rio de Janeiro state, nine deaths were reported, and 10 people died in floods or mudslides on the Sao Paulo coast.

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