Brazil devastated by floods, mud and oil spills

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The Independent US

Brazil's worst floods for more than 25 years have killed at least 48 people and driven nearly 100,000 to flee after their rickety hillside shanties were washed away by rivers of mud.

Brazil's worst floods for more than 25 years have killed at least 48 people and driven nearly 100,000 to flee after their rickety hillside shanties were washed away by rivers of mud.

The vicious weather has compounded the environmental calamities caused by thestate petroleum industry - vast areas of the countryside are already covered in oil slicks.

Troops have been sent to 46 devastated cities and towns in the states of Alagoas and Pernambuco to dig away the mud and to start clearing the roads that link the remote settlements. After five days of uninterrupted downpours, the President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, took advantage of a brief let-up in the rains on Wednesday to tour the worst affected areas by helicopter.

His first stop was Recife, the biggest city in the flood zone and the centre of rescue efforts. Shortages of food and power there have increased the misery for thousands of refugees huddling in improvised public shelters at public schools and bus stations. But hundreds more are cut off, forced to wait for emergency aid to arrive by river or air. Local television footage showed entire neighbourhoods submerged under filthy water and dazed residents struggling to emerge from their broken wooden shacks. Many were forced to wade through waist-deep slurry clutching children, pets and any possessions that they managed to salvage. Some frightened families climbed trees or waited patiently on rooftops for waters to subside.

Annual flooding is normal during the wet season, which runs from April to August, but this year the relentless storms have saturated scores of overbuilt hillside slums in these north-eastern towns and triggered mudslides.

"This is the worst damage from a natural disaster that we've had since the floods of 1975," said Carlos Alberto D'Albuquerque, a Pernambuco civil defence official As fresh storms look likely to continue, the region has been put on high alert and authorities declared many areas a state of emergency. The worst-hit state is Pernambuco, where at least 18 people died as a tide of mud careened down hillsides. The mudslide uprooted trees, overturned vehicles and buried exits from buildings.

Another 10 people are believed to be dead in neighbouring Alagoas, and tens of thousands of evacuees are anxious for news of missing relatives. Bridges have been washed out, most telephone lines damaged and many main roads blocked by debris - all of which has hampered emergency services. There is a growing fear of infection from drowned livestock and a shortage of fresh drinking water. Medical supplies are being dispatched as quickly as possible by government agencies

Man-made disasters added to the storm's destruction as a fourth petroleum industry accident was announced. At Paracambi, north-westof Rio de Janeiro, a pipeline ruptured last Saturday and gushed out 1,000 litres of the additive MTBE, a toxic petrol additive that is known to cause cancer. Company officials from Petrobras, the state oil monopoly, promised to contain this damage before the town's groundwater was contaminated, but residents and environmentalists are furious.

The company has promised to remove and treat all of the contaminated soil around the spill and to replace it with new earth. Petrobras said it immediately shut down the pipeline that runs between Brazil's "steel city", Volta Redonda, 84 miles north-west of Rio de Janeiro, and Japeri, which lies next to Paracambi.

An underwater pipeline at a Petrobras refinery split two weeks ago causing 4 million litres of crude oil to ooze into the Iguacu river. It was Brazil's biggest oil spill in 25 years.