When the river flowed backwards: a town in Brazil mining flood

What was expected to be a small surge came with such force it reversed the flow of the river that runs through the Brazilian town of Barra Longa, in the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais.

The wave of mud, from two dams that ruptured on Thursday at an iron ore mine, reached the town nearly 80 km (50 miles) away in the middle of the night, 10 hours after the first breach.

Authorities had told residents the river would rise just two meters. Even the local police officer managing preparations did not remove belongings from his home.

Instead it surged 15 meters, briefly changing course and flooding dozens of houses along its banks, including the officer’s own.

“If they’d told me it was going to be this bad I would have saved some things, like the TV,” said Losangeles Freitas, 48, another resident who spent the night with family on higher ground.

There were no reports of people missing from Barra Longa, but nearer the dams two victims were confirmed dead and 28 people were missing.

Mine operator Samarco, a joint venture between mining giants Vale SA (VALE5.SA) and BHP Billiton (BLT.L), said it still did not know the cause of the disaster.

Thick mud was setting like concrete in the heat on Saturday as residents shoveled out their homes, a hotel and supermarket. A digger skidded, trying to clear the entrance to some of the worst affected buildings.

As the mud dried the air became thick with dust and villagers wore masks to protect their lungs.

One teenager was able to find some humor in the disaster. “At least we have a beach now,” he quipped, looking out at the wide, muddy banks, some 400 km west of Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

For others, serious questions remain unanswered about why the warnings were so inaccurate.

In the house of Bernardo Trinidade, 58, a water mark some two meters high shows where the river surged in. When the water receded, deep mud coated the floor. The back yard is a swamp.

“I’m not even going to try and clean it,” Trinidade said. “I want the company and the government to help me.”

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