RIO DE JANEIRO—When we heard about the heavy rains and flash floods that severely battered the Rio range on Jan. 11, we immediately tried to call Tainá—the phone was out of range. We grew increasingly anxious. My sister, Tainá, and her husband, Angel Urrutia, both film directors, were visiting Nova Friburgo, one of the areas affected, with their two-month-old daughter, Mila.
Finally our phone rang—it was my sister. They were safe! Crying, Tainá told us all that they had been through.
In the middle of the night they were shaken awake by intermittent strong winds and heavy rain. The rain was falling so hard it sounded like granite, Angel had said to his wife.
The following morning, as Tainá fed her daughter, Angel came in with his arms full of things and said, “Look out the window.” When Tainá looked, she couldn’t believe what she saw. All of the hillsides had collapsed, and the houses around them were destroyed—only the place where they stood was intact.
The countryside, green the day before, was now completely maroon. Angel had already been outside helping rescue the housekeeper’s belongings—his modest house had been destroyed by the catastrophe.
Surrounded by rubble, water, and mud, it was too risky to venture out, so they decided to stay on the last piece of solid earth. They wrote in large letters “S.O.S.” on white sheets, but helicopters flying overhead didn’t notice them. They spent a sleepless night in fear of the falling rain.
By the next morning they had changed their minds and decided that staying was riskier than leaving. Angel tied Mila to Tainá’s body, and then they left everything behind and started to walk.
With a group of other survivors, they walked five miles in three hours in rain, up and down slippery mud banks, at constant risk of the hillside collapsing.
“It was an apocalyptic scene—people coming out of the rubble, crying and holding on to each other, making group decisions, and struggling hard, cleaning, preparing food, clearing roads and paths, and helping each other.”
It was like something from “An Essay on Blindness” said Tainá, referring to Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer’s novel in which mankind goes blind and experiences total chaos.
“Even the firefighters gave us wrong information. If we had gone the way they told us we would have had to walk 20 km [12.5 miles],” Tainá said.
“There are studies warning against the risks of tragedies like this in the region,” said Angel, referring to predictions made by meteorological institutes and studies by the federal and state governments and Petrobras.
“But the firefighters had no strategies and were disorganized,” said Tainá.
Arriving finally at the village of Mury, they took a taxi to Japuiba to find the car they had left there at the beginning of the trip. They were welcomed by a family who offered them safety, and a place to wash and care for the baby. They had lost a son and two granddaughters, all buried in the landslides. Lightning and yet more rain frightened everyone.
A few hours later, I heard a voice calling from outside my home—it was them! Tainá, with a woolly scarf on her head and her shoes still covered in mud, had returned to Rio with her family. Amidst their exhaustion, Mila’s laughter made the miracle of their survival all the more poignant.
At two months old, the baby had already made history; the first journey of her life had been an incredible adventure.
The rain only increased by early morning; the volume that had fallen was enormous. The landslides happened rapidly. Many died while sleeping, Tainá said.
“And to think that two days earlier, we were bathing in the pool, and showering under the waterfall, it was a sunny day. Now everything is ruined,” she said.
“We were left without electricity and telephone, and I realized how much of all this really isn’t essential for existence. People today are used to and so dependent on these things,” said Angel, adding that in abandoning all his belongings, he had to practice nonattachment.” It was a most interesting experience, because I realized even more that material things are nothing before the value of life itself.”
Families that lost everything are still weeping over the deaths of family members and friends.
The catastrophe in Rio de Janeiro is already considered the worst natural disaster in Brazil’s history, with more than 700 deaths, and 13,000 people displaced or without homes, according to the Brazilian Civil Defense.
President Dilma Rousseff and the governor of Rio Sergio Cabral declared three and seven days respectively of official mourning.