When today’s adults were in school, 20, 30 or 40 years ago, we used to learn that Brazil was a blessed country, because we didn’t have wars, we didn’t have volcanoes or hurricanes, and we didn’t have floods. We are now over 190 million people, and our cities are growing each day. The careless occupation of our territory led to a drastic change in the water cycle, and now every summer we face floods that bring destruction, economic losses and death to our cities.

Volunteers organize donations in the district of Conquista, municipality of Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro. Credit: ABr/Valter Campanato

Whenever a disaster like this hits Brazil, the U.S. government, through USAID, provides support to the Brazilian government in assisting the victims. In 2011 it was no different. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states are struggling to recover from floods and mudslides that left over 15,000 people displaced. The mountainous areas of Rio de Janeiro were hit by the heaviest downpours in 44 years. Businesses were destroyed, plantations were devastated and over 700 people died. The U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Thomas Shannon, announced the donation of a total of US$ 100,000 – US$50,000 each to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, through USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

This assistance is complementing existing federal, state, and municipal efforts to address the destruction caused by the floods. The money was donated to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), to buy items that are not usually donated, such as personal hygiene and cleaning products. ADRA is an international organization with experience in disaster assistance. USAID and OFDA are coordinating the actions, and are working close to the Brazilian government and the civil defense offices of both states.

The rain caused rivers of mud to rush down the mountains and tear through towns, leveling houses and throwing cars over buildings. The rain didn’t stop until five days after the tragedy, which made the rescue efforts really difficult. Rescuers had to walk to the worst-hit areas, because vehicles could not cross blocked roads. Many people are still missing, and this is already considered the worst natural disaster of Brazilian history.

We know that in the face of such tragedy, all help we can get is essential. Besides the official assistance, USAID is coordinating assistance actions of American companies established in Brazilian territory, through the Mais Unidos Group. This group is a partnership between the U.S. Mission in Brazil and over 100 companies that aim to strengthen alliances between the private and public sectors to improve corporate social responsibility investments.

Over 25 companies are involved in the assistance efforts. They are donating money, food, water and hygiene and cleaning products. They are collecting and supporting the distribution of donations made by their employees, clients and business partners. They are campaigning to raise money for non-governmental organizations that are already working in the assistance of the victims of the floods. They are encouraging their employees to volunteer in the assistance efforts.

In previous years, these companies have already demonstrated their ability to mobilize. The first time they united to provide support to the victims of a natural disaster in Brazil was in 2008, when the heavy rains flooded over 60 cities in Santa Catarina State, in the South Region. In 2009, Maranhão and Piauí states, in the Northeast Region, were hit by floods that affected over 60,000 people. Once again, the Mais Unidos companies provided assistance. In 2010, when Alagoas, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro were hit by floods and mudslides, the Mais Unidos companies quickly organized to deliver money, food and water to the families affected.

Each year, the American people are united with the Brazilian people through USAID to provide assistance to victims of natural disasters that bring sorrow and pain, but also arouse sympathy and solidarity. Even though I would hope we could do a better job in preventing these tragedies that repeat year after year, I’m still glad we can find ways of helping those who suffer the most.