Desperate scenes. The cry of the Earth and the Poor reflected in the images of the tragedy in the town of Petrópolis, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. This week, the catastrophe shows the consequences of the abuse of creation and of Mother Earth who “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom 8:22) and the so-called progress that kills those who are most in need.
On Tuesday, February 15, the rain in that mountain town was more than expected for the entire month, tragically resulting in at least 198 deaths, more than 80 missing, more than 80 houses destroyed, hundreds of families homeless and indescribable images of sadness and devastation.
In an interview to Portal G1, city resident Vagner Daniel said that the flood was sudden and began to spread very quickly. “It’s scary. People are in disbelief at what is happening. The population is astonished. Everyone is trying to survive as they can manage. I have five family members who, unfortunately, were trapped. I have cousins who are homeless, friends who work with me and whose houses were declared unsafe. We are trying to help each other here.”
Understand the phenomenon
A “perfect storm” of climate and social factors, is what meteorologists Josélia Pegorim and Estael Sias, and climatologist Carlos Nobre say in an interview for BBC Brasil. Josélia Pegorim, from weather forecast agency Climatempo, explains that “these storms are a result of a phenomenon known as SACZ, the South Atlantic Convergence Zone. These zones form when humidity brought by winds from the Amazon meets a cold front coming from the south. This causes the charged clouds to be concentrated in a region until they fall as thunderstorms.”
Although unusual for its intensity, the amount of rain was not considered surprising by scientists. “You don’t have to go far back: in recent decades, the mountain region has had storms, landslides and deaths”, recalls meteorologist Estael Sias, from agency Metsul. In summary, according to researchers, the tragedy was a combination of climate characteristics, the region’s relief, and population density.
For climatologist Carlos Nobre, “the tragedy is not exactly the occurrence of storms, but the fact that many people live in risk areas”. The scientist points out that “what we see today happens in the midst of an increase of just over one degree Celsius in the temperature of the planet. Even if we are very successful with environmental policies, it will still rise, so we need to put in place policies to be more resilient to these natural disasters, and the best one of them is not to let people live in those risky areas.”
This makes evident what Pope Francis describes in Laudato Si’: “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming […] They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.” [LS 25]
Hearing the cry of the poor
Scenes like this are becoming increasingly more common in a planet that is increasingly hostage to the consequences of the climate crisis. At the forefront of environmental tragedies, the most affected are the poor, who scream and cry out to the earth for help. As Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si’, “we are not experiencing a separate environmental crisis, but a great and urgent socio-environmental crisis”.
The landslide in the so-called “Morro na Oficina” primarily affected humble and poor families who, in a matter of hours, lost homes, belongings and even their own lives. It didn’t take long for the tragedy to reach other parts of the city, and complete chaos ensued. At dawn, images of people looking for their relatives in the mud, videos of cars being carried by rivers and bodies being found in the middle of the streets took place in the media.
The deterioration of the quality of human life and social degradation was an issue already reflected by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’, in 2015. In the encyclical, the pontiff recalls that “nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in” [LS 44]. Social deterioration is also a symptom of environmental deterioration as “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation”, the Pope says. Thus, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” [LS 49].
It is impossible not to be moved by the pain of brothers and sisters in the face of such tragedy and it is not difficult, unfortunately, to find similar scenarios near us, where the socio-environmental crisis is already affecting the lives and dignity of the poorest among us. Such desolation compels us to take even more urgent measures. How not to be moved? How not to be driven by the pain of others? How not to cry with those who cry?
Pope Francis’ message to those affected
Pope Francis sent a message of condolences to all those affected by the tragedy. The text, signed by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, states that “the Holy Father, upon learning with deep sorrow of the tragic consequences of the landslide in this city entrusts the Bishop to convey to the families of the victims his condolences and his participation in the grief of all those who are bereaved or have been deprived of their possessions. Asking God, the Father of mercy, for eternal repose for the deceased, comfort for the victims for whom he wishes a speedy recovery, and serenity and consolation of Christian hope for all those affected by this painful ordeal, he sends his apostolic blessing to all those who are suffering and those who seek to alleviate their sufferings”.
Hope in solidarity
The wave of solidarity for those affected by the tragedy has moved all of Brazil. There are thousands of financial and material donations that are reversed in food, personal hygiene items, and any product that can help those affected. Institutions, churches and local movements also work on the front line of donations and shelters, such as the Parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In an interview for the Climatempo website, Father Celestino says that they began to receive people as soon as the tragedy began, on Tuesday night. “We are housing about 150 to 200 people, including many children.”
The Franciscan Solidarity Service (SEFRAS, as per its acronym in Brazilian Portuguese) is also present in the region through the “SOS Petrópolis Franciscan Action” campaign. If you want to help, please access the website www.sefras.org.br and check their daily newsletters. To learn about other ways to help the victims of the tragedy, access the portal Para Quem Doar clicking here.
In the daily struggle for the defense of the common home flooded by the images of the tragedy in Brazil, Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si’ echoes even more strongly: “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
By Letícia Florêncio | journalist
& Mayra Santos| biologist