HRRC scientists visit Brazil, examine flood-prone areas

A&M team advise Brazillian Civil Defense officials on flood, landslide mitigation

In August 2002, scientists from Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center were invited to São Paulo, Brazil to participate in a civil defense training workshop and evaluate Brazilian civil defense programs for flood and landslide mitigation.

"They wanted us to look at what they do," said Carla Prater, an HRRC research scientist who was joined on the trip by Michael Lindell, the HRRC director. "We went to study both their technical system and the Brazilian emergency management system in general."

The trip included visits to riverside cities like Registro, Eldorado and Jundiaí, which are vulnerable to flooding and landslides. The A&M scientists also met with geologists and engineers at the University of São Paulo who are working on landslide and flood prediction systems.

Along their way, the A&M team attracted considerable press attention, due in part to Prater's fluency in Portuguese.

"Carla's language skills were very critical to the success of our trip," Lindell explained. "To the Brazilians, a Portuguese-speaking gringa was quite a novelty. She opened quite a few doors for us and as a result, we got to see areas of São Paulo and visit with people that we might otherwise have missed."

In Registro, about 189 kilometers southeast of São Paulo, the A&M team toured floodplain areas along the Ribeira de Iguape River. There they found the residents most at risk to flooding were poor squatters who, often dependent on the river for survival, had built settlements on its flood-prone banks. To mitigate this threat, the city had constructed quality, low-income housing for the riverside residents, but because the housing was far from employment and commerce, most of the squatters eventually returned to live in hazardous areas.

To address this problem, the city made the low-income housing more attractive by paving roads and introducing social programs. They also implemented neighborhood-level civil defense committees.

"Initially, the Brazilian's plan had not addressed the social issues involved in evacuations," Prater said, but they are moving quickly to remedy their mistakes. "Fortunately they're doing it right. They haven't made a lot of mistakes other countries make."

The observations the A&M team made in Registro were similar to their findings in Eldorado and Jundiaí.

Below is chronological summary of Lindell's and Prater's Aug. 6-18, 2002 trip to São Paulo. Brazil.

Report on Aug. 2002 trip to State of São Paulo, Brazil

By Mike Lindell and Carla Prater

Hazard Reduction and Recover Center
College of Architecture, Texas A&M University

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

The Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center team arrived in São Paulo on Wednesday August 7 and were transported by Captain Luiz Dias to the offices and residence of the governor of the state of São Paulo, the Palácio dos Bandeirantes, where the offices of the Coordenadoria Estadual de Defesa Civil (CEDEC) are located.

At the CEDEC, Carla Prater delivered a 45-minute presentation on the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center. Colonel Roberto Allegretti, the state civil defense coordinator, followed Prater with a 45-minute presentation on the activities of CEDEC. The rest of the day was spent touring the CEDEC headquarters. The meteorologist in their Emergency Operations Center explained their flood warning system.

Thursday, August 8, 2002

On Thursday the HRRC scientists traveled to Registro, a flood prone city on the Ribeira do Iguape River, about 189 kilometers southeast of São Paulo. The city has a population of about 50,000.

In Registro, the chief engineer of the local watershed management agency showed the A&M team how the state-wide flood warning system operated along that stretch of the Ribeira do Iguape River. Prater repeated her presentation about HRRC and was interviewed by the local newspapers.

After lunch the scientists toured two segments of the floodplain that presented recurrent problems for city and state agencies. In both locations the occupants of squatter settlement that had built up over time were relocated to casas populares - good quality low-income housing - and the settlements in the risk areas were demolished. This new housing was located in an area well away from the river but also much farther from the center of town. Consequently some of the favelados returned to rebuild in the risk area. Over time they were joined by others - some who moved in from rural areas and others who were from Registro and wanted to remain close to their families but could not afford conventional housing there.

City agencies have been partially successful in coping with this problem by increasing the attractiveness of the casas populares by providing paved roads, a community center and job training programs for both men and women. The city has also created an evacuee shelter program by constructing an exposition hall that has a roof but no walls. When the risk areas flood, the residents are relocated to the shelter area where heavy plastic is draped from the roof to form walls. Evacuee families partition the enclosed area with their furniture and other belongings to provide personal privacy.

An advantage of using the fairground is that the city has a legitimate reason for evicting those favelados who find the temporary shelter to be quite acceptable as permanent living quarters. When time for the regularly scheduled events that utilize the exposition space comes near, the city has a publicly acceptable rationale for evicting the homesteaders.

Friday, August 9, 2002

On Friday the HRRC scientists traveled to Eldorado, population 14,500, which is located approximately 60 kilometers upstream from Registro on the Ribiera River. Because it is located farther upstream, Eldorado has less warning about major floods originating at the head of the river. It is also located near the foot of the mountains, so the river valley is very narrow there. Consequently, a major flood had recently crested about 45 feet above flood stage inundating most of the town lying between the river and the city hall. The flood washed away an important bridge that was in the process of being reconstructed at a higher level when the A&M team arrived.

In the wake of the flood, the prefeito (mayor) was seeking funds to raise the levee along the river to 11 meters. Though the height would not have been sufficient for the most recent flood - the biggest in the 175-year history of the town - 11 meters would be sufficient for more common floods that typically rise only to 10 meters. In the meantime, residents of the most vulnerable areas in Eldorado contend with flood threats by evacuating themselves and their belongings to a community center located about one block away and five meters higher. As in Registro, the Eldoradan evacuees set up partitions that divide the community center into family units. At the end of our tour, a regional television reporter from Rede Globo in Santos interviewed Prater, the prefeito and Captain Dias.

Monday, August 12, 2002

On Monday the HRRC team met with researchers from two laboratories at the main campus of the University of São Paulo. The first group was in a geological laboratory that is developing a landslide prediction system. These researchers have developed hazard maps of the entire state of São Paulo, but have emphasized the coastal mountains where the landslide threat is the most severe. Their landslide prediction system is based upon rainfall measurements (both by radar and rain gauges) that are used to make preliminary predictions of landslide locations.

Because the risk areas are as much as a three-hour drive from the university, local teams have been trained to inspect slide-prone areas for indications of slippage. The checklist of indicators provides a qualitative basis for making evacuation recommendations, but quantitative predictions of slide probability will not be available until an adequate amount of data has been collected over the next few years.

The second laboratory was hydrological engineering laboratory responsible for developing a network of rain and stream gauges used in São Paulo's flood warning system.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

On Tuesday, the team visited Jundiaí, a medium-sized city with a population of about 323,000, about 50 km north of São Paulo. Jundiaí is a prosperous city with some industry located down slope, and thus usually downwind, of the city.

Because of its favorable economic conditions, Jundiaí has only a few small favelas, or squatter settlements, although as in the other cities visited, these are located in flood plains that have been avoided by all but the very poorest residents. As was the case in Registro, the Judiai authorities built casas populares and relocated the favelados from the risk areas. The casas populares were located just across the road from the favela so there was no problem with returnees, but the supply of favelados was so large that the squatter settlement was completely reconstructed within days of its demolition by the authorities.

In Jundiaí, the A&M scientists accompanied a large delegation from Defesa Civil in a lengthy meeting with the prefeito. Carla Prater was interviewed in Portuguese by reporters from the local television and radio station. The A&M team also appeared in a front page article in one local newspaper and in a long article in another local paper.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

On Wednesday the HRRC scientists participated in a civil defense training workshop for 200 civil defense employees and volunteers in Rio Claro, a city about 175 kilometers northwest of São Paulo with a population of about 160,000.

A local television station interviewed Prater and Lindell offered welcoming remarks (translated by Prater) along with Colonel Allegretti and the prefeito of the city. During the afternoon the scientists were led on a tour of the local campus of the University of São Paulo by the president, a nuclear physicist who headed the response to the 1987 radiological contamination incident at Goiânia. As a consequence of that experience, he was very interested in civil defense and said he plans to invite the A&M team to return to help his campus build its teaching capabilities on this subject.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

On Thursday morning, Prater made yet another presentation on the HRRC and its work in hazard mitigation at the civil defense training workshop. The presentation generated many questions from the audience, and a great deal of interest was expressed in having HRRC staff return to offer more extensive training in emergency management and mitigation techniques.

In the afternoon, the A&M team visited a state park developed from an old eucalyptus plantation that was started by the railroad in the early 20th century. The railroad was privatized, but the plantation was kept as public land and is being restored as a state park with a mix of local, state and federal funds. They then returned to participate in the closing ceremony for the workshop, and received certificates for participation.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Friday, the Aggies left Rio Claro and traveled 64 kilometers to São Carlos, population 185,000, where they visited the local Comissão de Defesa Civil (COMDEC) installations. They were joined by Colonel Allegretti and had lunch with the local Rotary Club. Prater and Allegretti were interviewed by the local affiliate of the Jovem Pan radio network, and then toured the new Transportes Aéreas de Marília airplane repair facility and a Tecumseh compressor manufacturing plant.

Friday evening the group attended a graduation ceremony for the new volunteers for the São Carlos COMDEC, and then returned to São Paulo.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

The HRRC team returned to College Station.

- The End -

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