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Flash Flood Disaster - rebuilding effort

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It was the end of a sweltering Friday just like so many others here on the Atlantic coast of São Paulo, Brazil. I was alone with the cats, sitting on the couch and working on a project - I am a local teacher and artist.  When the rain started, it was nothing new; I went through the house shutting windows and putting out pans where the drips are.  I sat back down and continued my work, until about twenty minutes later, when I heard my neighbor screaming my name.

Going out to answer her on the second-floor veranda, all I could see was a swirling lake of brown water where my yard and driveway usually were.  Furniture, bicycles and yard tools were floating around in the water, and I could not see the roof of my car.

Terrified, I called 190, the Brazilian version of 911, but after being shunted around various call centers, I called my friend Corrin and just walked around helplessly on the second floor of the house, surveying the chaos outside as the water gradually rose up the stairs.  She called back and said that Emergency Services said there was nothing they could do "“ just don't go outside.  Obvious.  Shouting back and forth with my neighbor, I verified that she and her family were ok, and they shouted back that they had managed to pull my dogs out of the floodwater.  Their doghouse had simply disintegrated in the rushing waters.

The water receded as quickly as it came "“ a freak flash flood that left our region devastated "“ it tore through our neighborhood, ripping trees out, crashing fences and gates, drowning cars, and leaving an inches - thick coating of smelly mud everywhere the eye could see. 

Local old-timers said they had never seen anything like it.  Dead animals lay everywhere "“neighborhood dogs, cats, mice, rats, possums, fish, snakes, and frogs intertwined with mountains of debris and broken parts of houses and cars.  The bridge over the little river was wiped clean away by the onrush of water, leaving people on the other side stranded for more than a week.  In desperation, they began to swim across the river with children strapped to their backs just in an effort to get out and get food.  Normally, this creek is ankle-deep "“ I walk the dogs in it and kids constantly play in it.  But this night it rose to over three meters as a cold front from Argentina activated a four-day mass of hot, pregnant air which just hung over the coast, brooding. 

My friends who were not hit by the flash flood all flocked to my house in the morning to help me face the chaos.  It took about four days of mucking to get my house and my neighbors' houses out from under the mud.  We all banded together to help, but Emergency Services were nowhere to be seen.  Adding an extra thick layer of stress to everything was the fact that Telefonica, the Brazilian national phone company, cut my service due to a "bank clerical error" the day after the flood. I had no way to call for help except to march through troughs of mud to the nearest convenience store.

Days and days of mucking, cleaning, dredging, washing, digging, chopping, and scrubbing turned into two of the most stressful weeks of my entire life.  Organizing repairs and workers and materials was just a complete mess due to the fact that this freak occurrence hit the whole north coast of São Paulo state, and help was in desperately short supply. 

Civil Defense didn't show up for over a week "“ they are horribly understaffed and just unequipped to handle the scale of the disaster.  After about two weeks, there still hadn't been any garbage pick-up, and our street turned into vast infectious mess with piles upon piles of trash from all the houses.  When phone service finally got turned back on, I spent two days calling for garbage trucks to come, and they finally did, but not until after I was at my wits' end.

The ground floor of the house is structurally solid, but I lost everything in it "“ furniture, fans, beds, towels, sheets, clothing, washer, dryer, and other equipment.  It will all have to be redone.  Even though my car was towed and dredged, it appears that it is totaled; having been completely submerged.  My students have been picking me up and dropping me off for class while I am in this phase, but I will have to get a new car really soon.  I can't rely on their good will forever.

Having recently come back to Brazil and put my life savings into this house, I didn't have insurance yet "“ and only liability on the car.  I am trying to raise $75,000 to help me rebuild the damaged parts of the house and replace my car.  I would like use part of the money to privately hire civil engineers to assess the river and make recommendations. Then comes the hard part "“ I would like to hire a lawyer to petition the county and state governments to enter with sorely-needed infrastructure like drainage systems and river-dredging. Many people suffered in this disaster, which even ended up taking two lives in the region.  Even though Mother Nature has her ways, I think we can be a lot smarter with the ways we prepare for and react to her manifestations. 

I am immensely grateful to all my friends who have helped me and to all who donate to my campaign.




Paola Blanton

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