Glenwood exchange student safe after Brazil mudslides |

Glenwood exchange student safe after Brazil mudslides

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A Glenwood Springs Rotary exchange student had a harrowing couple of days, not to mention some worried parents back home, after torrential rains caused deadly flooding and landslides in the Rio de Janeiro region of Brazil last week.

Serena Kauffman, a sophomore at Glenwood Springs High School, has been on Rotary exchange in Brazil since late August. She was staying with her host family in the city of Nova Friburgo in the region most affected by last week’s tragedy, which claimed the lives of more than 400 people.

“It was pretty terrifying for about 24 hours before we could get in touch with her,” said Serena’s mother, Leigh McGown, who is the principal at Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs.

She and Serena’s father, Ted Kauffman, were on edge wondering if their daughter was OK.

“Part of what complicated the situation is the Rotary contacts we have are from the same town, and they were busy helping with the catastrophe,” McGown said.

With help from Serena’s grandmother, who works for Marriott hotels, McGown said they were able to relay a message through hotel workers in Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 13, the day after the rain storms.

They eventually received word back that their daughter was OK, and had relocated to a safe area in the city of Rio with members of her host family.

The Post Independent attempted to reach Serena via e-mail without success, as Internet service is still spotty a week after the flooding.

McGown said they managed to contact their daughter through Skype a couple of times since the disaster. She told them she was in the center of town the night of the storm.

“The schools are on summer break there, so she was out with some friends,” McGown said. “She decided to take a bus back home, and the storm hit about 15 minutes later. There was no warning that it was anything unusual. It had been raining all month, so she didn’t think anything of it.”

Fortunately, McGown said, the host family’s apartment building was in a neighborhood that was less-affected by the flooding, although water and other utilities were cut off. The host family’s mother and 18-year-old daughter, along with Serena, found a place to stay in Rio, while the father stayed at the apartment, she said.

Serena is one of four Rotary exchange students in the region, including two from Australia and one from Canada.

“She was able to get in contact with the girl from Canada the next day, but it took awhile to get in touch with the other two,” McGown said. “A lot of the roads were destroyed, and it’s hard to get anywhere.”

Tragically, they also learned that a boy from the school Serena attended died when his house collapsed.

“It’s been a pretty intense situation,” McGown said. “We’re ecstatic she’s OK, but she’s still there in a rather unstable place, so it’s worrisome.”

Ironically, Serena is not the first Rotary exchange student from the Roaring Fork Valley to experience a natural disaster in South America in recent years. Just last year, Roaring Fork High School student Raleigh Burleigh was a Carbondale Rotary exchange student in Chile when a major earthquake ravaged that country. He, too, was unharmed.

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