As Brazil floods death toll rises, so does the tide of local volunteers

The Brazil floods death toll shot past 600 on Sunday, but survivors are being helped by a groundswell of local support unusual for a country that sees lethal floods almost every year.

Bruno Domingos/Reuters
Volunteers arrange donations for residents affected by a landslide at a shelter in Teresopolis Jan. 13. More heavy rains brought the Brazil floods death toll past 600 on Sunday.

The death toll from Brazil’s most lethal floods in memory shot past 600 Sunday, and it's still rising as rescuers continue to dig through mudslides in the aftermath of last week's torrential rains.

But amid the tragedy, the worst affected cities of Teresópolis, Nova Friburgo, and Petrópolis are experiencing a groundswell of spirited local volunteerism unusual for a country that sees lethal floods almost every year.

Swarms of locals wearing makeshift signs reading “volunteer” helped survivors this weekend in one gymnasium-turned-flood-shelter in the hard-hit city of Teresópolis. Among them: law student Paula Fraga and print shop employee George Barrozo da Silva, who were about to leave their unaffected Teresópolis homes for a planned beach vacation this week.

But now they’ve each spent hours each day helping in the gym.

“I woke up to a phone call [Wednesday morning], ‘Look at the television, Teresópolis is coming to an end!,' ” the tattooed and eyebrow-ringed Mr. Barrozo says.

He and Ms. Fraga had no links to service organizations nor volunteer experience in the past, but – like so many others in this tragedy's aftermath – they were moved by the devastation they saw to help in any way they could.

They rushed to the ‘Pedrão’ gymnasium to offer their labor. They spent the day sorting donated clothes and planned to soon donate blood.

“For as long as it’s needed, we’ll keep coming” law student Braga says, adding that she expected to spend her Monday birthday here in the gym.

Behind the couple, a young woman in jeans circled the gym – “Does anyone want juice?” – as two volunteers followed her with trays of potato soup and bananas.

Meanwhile, two hurried women with no connection to any volunteer group took the name of anyone survivor entering the gym and entered the data into spreadsheets to help connect survivors to missing friends and family. The two women explained that as soon as they heard of the flood from their safe homes nearby, they grabbed their laptops and wireless ports and headed off to help.

Many of those volunteering are students, and it helps that they are on their summer vacations, says Herculano Abrahão, who leads the Red Cross unit in the Teresópolis gym ‘Pedrão’ shelter.

He estimated on Thursday that 300 volunteers had already shown up to this shelter and smaller nearby ones, only a handful of whom were from the Red Cross itself.

The volunteer spirit went way beyond one gym in Teresópolis.

The Red Cross in Rio de Janeiro says it has already received 150 tons of non-perishables, hygiene products, mattresses, and blankets.

Three hours after the state Health Ministry opened registration on Friday, some 131 health professionals in Rio de Janeiro registered to volunteer to care for flood victims, local media reported.

The Rio-based daily O Dia highlighted the broad solidarity movement among volunteers arriving in the affected cities and grassroots fundraising efforts, calling the thousands of bloggers and social network users across the country promoting disaster relief as the “largest current ever seen.”

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