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Deadly rains, scant preparation in Brazil as tropical summer brings fatal mudslides
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) ' Brazil's tropical storms bring death every summer as torrential rains unleash floods and mudslides that can bury whole communities in minutes. A single storm killed nearly 1,000 people last year.
This season was going to be different. Government officials promised money would flow to prevent these catastrophes. But with the rains and deaths already starting, the government's own figures show funds are not going where officials say they are needed.
Brazil's Congress set aside $282 million last year for the federal disaster-prevention program, a jump from the $236 allotted in 2010. On orders of President Dilma Rousseff, government geologists drew up a list of cities at greatest risk for a natural disaster.
That came in response to torrential rains at this time last year that dissolved hillsides and turned creeks into rampaging rivers in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, burying or ripping away entire neighborhoods. A total of 918 people died, and the bodies of 215 are still missing.
Yet only 30 percent of the new disaster money has been spent, and little of it has gone to the highest-risk areas, according to the independent group Contas Abertas ' "Open Accounts" ' which campaigns for transparency in government.
It found that so far, disaster-prevention funds have gone to only two of the 56 cities that the new survey listed as high risk. Sao Paulo obtained $86,000 and $171,000 went to Florianopolis, the capital of Santa Catarina state, where 135 people died in floods in 2008.
The Brazilian Geological Service survey found nearly 180,000 people living in dangerously fragile areas, mostly in southeastern states such Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
But the city awarded the most disaster prevention money from the 2011 budget is Recife, which got $14 million from the Ministry of National Integration. The northeastern city is not even on the new list of areas at risk, though it is the capital of Pernambuco, the home state of National Integration Minister Fernando Bezerra Coelho.
Pernambuco got more funding than any other state for disaster prevention this past year. Flood-devastated Rio de Janeiro was 10th.
Bezerra has denied improperly favoring his state, noting that the money will help build dams to control rivers that flooded and killed 20 people in 2010.
"You can't discriminate against Pernambuco because it's the state the minister comes from," he told a news conference last week. "Any Brazilian citizen sitting in this chair would have done the same."
While Rousseff has stood behind Bezerra, Congress has summoned him to answer questions about allegations of improper spending.
Meanwhile, dangerous hillsides are going without reinforcement and perilous rivers are undredged.
"The president doesn't want more people to die, but more people will die. There will be more deaths," said Eduardo Macedo, vice president of Brazil's association of geologists. "We're making advances, but we are not even close to having in place the structure we need."
According to his group, officials have spent just about a quarter of the money the Congress has allocated to disaster relief each year from 2004 to 2011, following a pattern of under-spending that is common among federal ministries.
Small municipalities often don't have the resources to draw up acceptable proposals for federal money, and Brazilian bureaucracy snarls projects even when funding has been granted, said Gil Castello Branco, founder of Contas Abertas.
He said the money that is paid often flows to areas with political ties to those disbursing the funds.
"The saddest part of this is seeing history repeat itself over the years: the disasters, and the poor use of public resources meant to prevent them," said Gil said.
The small Rio de Janeiro town of Sapucaia, where 20 have died this week, has not gotten any federal help, although it suffered a flood two years ago, said Mayor Anderson Zanon. The municipal government doesn't have the resources to take on major projects to contain denuded slopes and build new homes for people living in risky areas without federal funding, he said.
"We can't continue having these tragedies," he said. "This could have been prevented. We need to build, do containment work, so this doesn't happen again next year."
Minister Bezerra Coelho visited some of the flooded parts of Rio state this week and announced $12 million would sent to help victims there as part of a $244 million emergency response package announced by the president for the southeastern states.
To Rita de Cassia Mendes Morais, who lost four family members and "every brick" of her home in Sapucaia, the promise rings hollow.
"It's not just about going on television and talking, and making promises," she said. "They come here now, then they disappear, and the money too. I want the government to have more heart, to look out for us who have survived the worst."