Flooding forecast to worsen in Brazil’s south, where many who remain are poor

May 12, 2024, 8:05 PM

Residents row a boat in a flooded street after heavy rains, in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul stat...

Residents row a boat in a flooded street after heavy rains, in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, Saturday, May 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

(AP Photo/Andre Penner)

ELDORADO DO SUL, Brazil (AP) — More rain started coming down on Saturday in Brazil’s already flooded Rio Grande do Sul state, where many of those remaining are poor people with limited ability to move to less dangerous areas.

More than 15 centimeters (nearly six inches) of rain could fall over the weekend and will probably worsen flooding, according to the Friday afternoon bulletin from Brazil’s national meteorology institute. It said there is also a high likelihood that winds will intensify and water levels rise in the Patos lagoon next to the state capital, Porto Alegre, and the surrounding area.

As of Saturday afternoon, heavy rains were falling in the northern and central regions of the state, and water levels were rising.

Carlos Sampaio, 62, lives in a low-income community next to soccer club Gremio’s stadium in Porto Alegre. His two-story home doubles as a sports bar.

Even though the first floor is inundated, he said he won’t leave, partly out of fear of looters in his high-crime neighborhood, where police carry assault rifles as they patrol its flooded streets. But Sampaio also has nowhere else to go, he told The Associated Press.

“I am analyzing how safe I am, and I know that my belongings aren’t safe at all,” Sampaio said. “As long as I can fight for what is mine, within my abilities to not leave myself exposed, I will fight.”

The number of lives impacted

At least 136 people have died in the floods since they began last week, and 125 more are missing, local authorities said Friday. The number of people displaced from their homes because of the torrential rains has surpassed 400,000, of whom 70,000 are sheltering in gyms, schools and other temporary locations.

“I came here on Monday — lost my apartment to the flood,” Matheus Vicari, a 32-year-old Uber driver, said inside a shelter where he is staying with his young son. “I don’t spent a lot of time here. I try to be out to think about something else.”

Some residents of Rio Grande do Sul state have found sanctuary at second homes, including Alexandra Zanela, who co-owns a content agency in Porto Alegre.

Zanela and her partner volunteered when the floods began, but chose to move out after frequent electricity and water cuts. She headed to the beachfront city of Capao da Canoa — so far unaffected by flooding — where her partner’s family owns a summer home.

“We took a ride with my sister-in-law, took our two cats, my mother and a friend of hers and came here safely. We left the Porto Alegre chaos,” Zanela, 42, told the AP by phone. “It is very clear that those who have the privilege to leave are in a much safer position, and those living in the poorer areas of Porto Alegre have no option.”

Weather across South America is affected by the El Niño climate phenomenon, a naturally occurring event that periodically warms surface waters in the equatorial Pacific. In Brazil, El Niño has historically caused droughts in the north and intense rainfall in the south, and this year the effects have been particularly severe.

The occurrence of extreme weather

Scientists say extreme weather is happening more frequently because of climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels that emit planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, and overwhelmingly agree the world needs to drastically cut the burning of coal, oil and gas to limit global warming.

But there is also a need for social policy responses, said Natalie Unterstell, president of Talanoa Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based climate policy think tank.

“Providing an effective response to climate change in Brazil requires us to combat inequalities,” Unterstell said.

In Brazil, the poor often live in houses built from less resilient materials such as wood and in unregulated areas more vulnerable to damage from extreme weather, such as low-lying areas or on steep hillsides.

“We cannot say that the worst is over,” Rio Grande do Sul Gov. Eduardo Leite said on social media Friday. The day before, he estimated that 19 billion reais ($3.7 billion) will be needed to rebuild the state.

The scale of devastation may be most comparable to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, Sergio Vale, chief economist at MB Associates, wrote in a note Friday.

Rio Grande do Sul has the sixth-highest gross domestic product per capita among Brazil’s 26 states and the federal district, according to the national statistics institute. Many of the state’s inhabitants descend from Italian and German immigrants.

“In the popular imagination, the population of Rio Grande do Sul is seen as white and well-off, but this is not the reality,” said Marília Closs, a researcher at the CIPO Platform, a climate think tank. “It’s very important to dispel this fiction, because it’s constructed with a political objective” to erase Black and poor residents, she said.

In Canoas, one of the hardest-hit cities in the state, Paulo Cezar Wolf’s small wooden house has been fully submerged, along with all his belongings. The truck driver, who is Black, now lives in the back of a loaned truck with six of his neighbors, who all cook, eat and sleep there.

Wolf, 54, has considered leaving the rural region, where he has lived since childhood, but has nowhere else to go and doesn’t want to leave behind his four adult children.

“It is too late for someone like me to move somewhere else,” Wolf said, wearing a donated sweatshirt as he stood on a highway.

A mass of cold and dry air

The meteorology institute predicts the arrival of a mass of cold and dry air will reduce the chance of rain beginning Monday. But it also means temperatures are set to drop sharply, to around freezing by Wednesday. That makes hypothermia a concern for those who are wet and lacking electricity.

Celebrities, among them supermodel Gisele Bündchen who is from Rio Grande do Sul, have been sharing links and information about where and how to donate to help flood victims. Churches, businesses, schools and ordinary citizens around the country have been rallying to provide support.

The U.N. refugee agency is distributing blankets and mattresses. It’s sending additional items, such as emergency shelters, kitchen sets, blankets, solar lamps and hygiene kits, from its stockpiles in northern Brazil and elsewhere in the region.

On Thursday, Brazil’s federal government announced a package of 50.9 billion reais ($10 billion) for employees, beneficiaries of social programs, the state and municipalities, companies and rural producers in Rio Grande do Sul.

The same day, the Brazilian air force parachuted more than two tons of food and water to areas that are inaccessible because of blocked roads. The navy has sent three vessels to help those affected, among them the Atlantic Multipurpose Aircraft Ship, which it said is considered the largest warship in Latin America. It arrived on the state’s coast Saturday.

The U.S. has sent $20,000 for personal hygiene kits and cleaning supplies and will be providing an additional $100,000 in humanitarian assistance through existing regional programs, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Friday.

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Flooding forecast to worsen in Brazil’s south, where many who remain are poor