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Brazil: isolated families in Rio's mountains reconnect with their relatives

19-01-2011 Feature

Following the flooding and landslides that hit Brazil on 12 January, many people in isolated areas still have no means of contacting the outside world. The Brazilian Red Cross and the ICRC have been making satellite phones available, so that people in the affected area can reassure their worried relatives that they are safe and well.

"I’m alive!" was all that Sandra Knipfer wanted to tell her daughter on the opposite side of Rio de Janeiro state. Sandra was one of hundreds, maybe thousands of isolated residents of Rio's mountainous region left with no means of communication following mudslides that are being described as one of the worst natural catastrophes to ever hit Brazil. She and others were able to talk to their relatives using the satellite phones provided by the ICRC early this week, following a request from the Brazilian Red Cross (BRC).

Tears of joy pour down Sandra’s face as she hands back the phone. "This is amazing! Our families were going crazy not knowing what had happened to us!" But no sooner has she finished her call than she wipes her eyes and wades off into the mud that fills the main street of Vieira, to help others affected by the disaster.

Vieira, a district of Teresópolis, is one of several isolated locations in Rio state, where flooding and landslides have caused over 700 casualties, hundreds of people are missing and some 15,000 people have lost their homes. There is still no electricity or telephone, and more corpses are being discovered as rescue teams clear away the mud and debris. The disaster has also affected the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais.

Restoring family links is part of the joint response to the disaster that the Brazilian Red Cross is leading, with the support of the ICRC. Joint teams are currently in the cities of Teresópolis and Nova Friburgo offering two-minute satellite phone calls to people unable to contact their worried relatives outside the area.

"This technology is a spectacular way of finding people. The telephone allows you to feel the person on the other end of the line and comfort them," said BRC tracing chief Osvaldo Amarante, who joined one of the groups.

Daniel Tignola (22) is a graduate student of medicine and a member of the heath team that has been working at a temporary clinic set up at a Vieira grocer’s after the health centre was put out of action. "People simply don't know the extent of what happened here. The Red Cross has a vital job to do," he said.

Stephan Sakalian heads an ICRC project in Rio aimed at reducing the humanitarian consequences of armed violence in seven of the city’s favelas. "The ICRC offers its sympathy to the people affected,” he stated. “We shall use all our experience of humanitarian emergencies to alleviate the suffering that the flooding and landslides have caused to so many.”

For information on the overall response of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to the disaster in Brazil, please visit the websites of the Brazilian Red Cross and of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


Photos

Teresópolis, Brazil. People in this isolated mountainous region can now contact their families again, thanks to a satellite phone. 

Teresópolis, Brazil. People in this isolated mountainous region can now contact their families again, thanks to a satellite phone.
© ICRC / M. Moraes / br-e-00156

Teresópolis, Brazil. A woman tries to find out what has happened to her husband, who was away from home at the time of the floods and has been unable to return since. Her daughter waits anxiously for news of her father. 

Teresópolis, Brazil. A woman tries to find out what has happened to her husband, who was away from home at the time of the floods and has been unable to return since. Her daughter waits anxiously for news of her father.
© ICRC / M. Moraes / br-e-00157