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Brazil floods: Rescuers race against time as toll rises

May 5, 2024

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva traveled to the hard-hit state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil's south as rescue efforts continued. The death toll from flooding has risen to 75, while more than 100 people are missing.

A bird's eye view of flooding in the center of Porto Alegre showing freeway bridges submerged by muddy waters
Heavy flooding has displaced nearly 90,000 people in Porto Alegre and destroyed infrastructure throughout the regionImage: Renan Mattos/REUTERS

Rescuers in the southern Brazilian city Porto Alegre — the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state — used jets skis and boats to reach residents trapped on their roofs as floodwaters in the city continued to rise.

Civil Defense officials say at least 103 of the city's 1.4 million residents are missing and more than 88,000 have been forced to flee. The official death toll from the natural catastrophe now stands at 75.

Sustained rains in the region have led the Guaiba River, which flows through Porto Alegre, to rapidly swell, triggering flooding and mudslides.

Local officials say flooding has pushed water levels to 5.3 meters (17.4 feet), far exceeding the historic high of 4.76 meters registered in 1941.

The inundation has all but swallowed many homes in the area, yet the waters continue to rise as rain remains in the forecast for the next couple of days.

'Absolutely unprecedented' flooding

Beyond the tens of thousands forced to flee, Civil Defense officials say more than one million people have been cut off from access to drinking water.

Officials say it is impossible to begin calculating the damage caused in the incident, with Rio Grande do Sul Governor Eduardo Leite calling for a "Marshall Plan" to rebuild the prosperous state.

The peaks of roofs stick out of floodwaters in Canoas, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Rio Grande do Sul Governor Eduardo Leite has called for a 'Marshall Plan' to rebuild his state Image: Amanda Perobelli/REUTERS

Leite took to Instagram to give a live update Sunday, calling the event "absolutely unprecedented."

An agroindustrial powerhouse, the region saw much infrastructure, especially roads and bridges, simply swept away by rushing floodwaters. The dam at a small hydroelectric power plant in the area was also partially destroyed.

Rescuers say some cities in the area have become entirely inaccessible, noting that over 300 municipalities had suffered damage since flooding began on Monday.

Many people seeking to flee Porto Alegre, for instance, became trapped there when bus service out of the city was canceled. Porto Alegre's international airport was also closed indefinitely on Friday.

Boats full of rescuers and rescued in the city of Canoas, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Floodwaters have continued to rise, with intermittent rain forecast for the next couple of days Image: Amanda Perobelli/REUTERS

Lula visits hard-hit area

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — who blamed the catastrophe on climate change — arrived in the state on Sunday with most of his Cabinet.

The president and his team were expected to discuss rescue and reconstruction efforts with state and local officials.

In Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the fate of residents during his weekly Sunday address at Saint Peter's Square, saying: "I assure my prayers for the people of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, affected by major floods. May the Lord receive the dead, comfort their families and all those who leave their homes."

Brazil flooding leaves dozens dead

js/nm (AFP, Reuters)