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News / Nation & World

Southern Brazil is still reeling from massive flooding as it faces risk from new storms

By MAURICIO SAVARESE and GABRIELA SÁ PESSOA, Associated Press
Published: May 8, 2024, 2:24pm
4 Photos
People rest in a shelter after their homes were flooded by heavy rains in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, Saturday, May 4, 2024.
People rest in a shelter after their homes were flooded by heavy rains in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, Saturday, May 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Carlos Macedo) Photo Gallery

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Authorities in southern Brazil rushed Wednesday to rescue survivors of massive flooding that has killed at least 100 people, but some residents refused to leave belongings behind while others returned to evacuated homes despite the risk of new storms.

Heavy rains and flooding in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul since last week also have left 128 people missing, authorities said. More than 230,000 have been displaced, and much of the region has been isolated by the floodwaters.

More storms are expected in the state on Wednesday, with hail and wind gusts reaching up to 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), according to the national meteorology institute’s morning bulletin.

Staffers of the state’s civil defense agency told The Associated Press they have been struggling to persuade residents of the city of Eldorado do Sul, one of the hardest hit by the floods, to leave their homes. It is located beside Porto Alegre, near the center of the state’s coastline. At least four people declined to evacuate.

A flyover of Eldorado do Sul in a military helicopter showed hundreds of houses submerged, with only their roofs visible. Residents were using small boards, surfboards and personal watercraft to move around. Mayor Ernani de Freitas told local journalists that the city “will be totally evacuated.”

“It will take at least a year to recover,” he said.

Rio Grande do Sul’s Gov. Eduardo Leite, speaking at a news conference late Tuesday, appealed to residents to stay out of harm’s way, as the anticipated downpour may cause more severe flooding across the state.

“It isn’t the time to return home,” he said.

The civil defense agency’s own urgent warning asking displaced residents not to return to flooded areas also stressed the risk of disease transmission.

Army Gen. Marcelo Zucco, one of the coordinators of rescue operations, told the AP his team is working at full speed before heavy rains that are forecast to hit the Porto Alegre area this weekend. Moderate rain was falling Wednesday afternoon in the city.

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“We hope the next rains are not like those we saw, but there’s no way to be sure there won’t be trouble ahead of us,” Zucco said.

“At this moment we are focusing on finishing rescue operations and starting logistical support to the population. That’s bringing water, medication, food and transportation for the sick to some hospital,” the general added.

He also said some improvement in conditions for the day helped his men finally access some areas by land.

Over the weekend, rain in northern Rio Grande do Sul could prompt renewed swelling of rivers that are already causing widespread flooding around the Patos lagoon, where the Porto Alegre municipal region is located, Estael Sias, a meteorologist at a Rio Grande do Sul-based forecasting service, told The Associated Press.

“We will remain on this level of alert at least until the end of the month,” she said.

A report by the National Confederation of Municipalities estimates damages at 4.6 billion reais ($930 million) in nearly 80% of Rio Grande do Sul’s municipalities.

Gov. Leite has said that the enormous impact will require something akin to the Marshall Plan for Europe’s post-WWII recovery. Already the state has asked the federal government to suspend debt payments and create a fund for the southern region.

On Tuesday, Congress passed a decree declaring a state of calamity in Rio Grande do Sul until the end of the year, allowing the federal government to quickly allocate money to mitigate the catastrophe and rebuild regions affected by the floods, bypassing a spending cap. The vote united supporters and opponents of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government.

“There is no limit to the public spending necessary to resolve the problem of the calamity that today is ravaging Rio Grande do Sul state,” Planning and Budget Minister Simone Tebet told Radio Gaucha in an interview.

Sá Pessoa reported from Sao Paulo.

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