The landslides and floods that tore through the mountains surrounding Rio de Janeiro on 12 January have so far claimed at least 762 lives. But the impact of the worst natural disaster in Brazilian history is stretching far beyond the mud plains, posing serious questions of the country’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, who took office just 11 days earlier.
On day two of the tragedy, with bodies piling up in the garage of Teresópolis’s police station and rescue workers trawling the mud for survivors, Rousseff flew over the region and announced a R$780m (€344m) reconstruction package. “It is a very dramatic moment,” she said, after trekking through one flooded town in an orange rescue jacket.
Many locals, however, were left unconvinced by the response of their new “presidenta”. Marcos Silva, a nurse who lost his home, said the government had shown a lack of commitment to citizens. “Nobody warned my family,” he claimed. “Dilma [Rousseff] only came because the media was all over the story. Doing a fly-over is easy.”
Others have been kinder. “I believe she is doing what she can,” said Lucas Guimarães, part of the mayor’s economic development team in Teresópolis. “Unfortunately we are very good at helping people after something has happened, but we are not good at planning to prevent things… we spend more money trying to bring people back to life rather than keeping them healthy in the first place.”
If the jury is still out on Rousseff’s performance, the same is not true for the mayor of Teresópolis, a large municipality in the damaged hills. Locals are virtually unanimous in complaining that Jorge Mario Sedlacek, a member of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT), steadfastly refused to “put his feet in the mud”, leaving victims to dig shallow graves for the dead and set up their own defense teams to cope with looting.
“We know that the authorities could be doing much more than they are but we can’t just sit around waiting for them to do their part,” said Marcos Camelo, 56, a leather-clad Harley Davidson enthusiast helping with the relief effort.
On my eighth and final day in Teresópolis this week, I finally bumped into Mayor Sedlacek at a town centre restaurant. Did he have time for an interview? “No.” How were things going? “Society is reacting.” Jorge Mario was right; across the flood-hit region thousands of volunteers were chipping in, from Taiwanese expats to Hell’s Angels, evangelical preachers and pop-stars.
Few voters, however, would tell you the same about Teresópolis’s mayor and many are equally critical of Rousseff. Daniel Pacheco, whose home was completely leveled last week, summed up the local sentiment. “All I want to ask of our authorities is that they don’t forget us,” he said.