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Dozens believed to be dead as southern Brazil is hit by the worst rain in 80 years

Heavy rains in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul killed 37 people, while another 74 were missing, the state civil protection agency said on Friday, as record-breaking floods devastated towns and forced thousands to leave their homes.

It was the fourth environmental disaster in a year, after floods in July, September and November 2023 that killed a total of 75 people.

According to Brazil’s Geological Survey, floods across the state have surpassed those from a historic deluge in 1941.

In some cities, water levels were at their highest since records began nearly 150 years ago, the agency said.

Residents and their pets evacuate a flooded area in Sao Sebastiao do Cai (AP Photo/Carlos Macedo)

On Thursday, a dam at a hydroelectric power station between the towns of Bento Goncalves and Cotipora partially collapsed and entire towns in the Taquari River valley, such as Lajeado and Estrela, were completely overtaken by water.

In the city of Feliz, 80 kilometers from the capital, Porto Alegre, a hugely swollen river has swept away a bridge connecting the city to the neighboring town of Linha Nova.

Operators reported power, communications and water outages across the state. According to civil protection, more than 23,000 people had to leave their homes.

Without internet, phone service or electricity, residents struggled to provide updates or information to their relatives living in other states.

As Governor, I am standing firm here and I guarantee that we will not falter. We do everything with focus, attention, discipline and outrage to ensure that everything within our reach gets done

Helicopters flew continuously over the cities as stranded families with children waited on the roofs for rescue.

The downpour started on Monday and is expected to continue at least until Saturday, Marcelo Seluchi, chief meteorologist at the National Center for Monitoring and Alerting of Natural Disasters, told Brazilian public television on Friday.

On Thursday evening, Governor Eduardo Leite warned the state’s population – known as gauchos – about the persistent rain and flooding.

The situation in Porto Alegre was expected to deteriorate, he said.

“As a human being, I am broken inside, just like any gaucho,” he said.

“But as governor, I am standing firm here and I guarantee that we will not waver. We do everything with focus, attention, discipline and outrage, to ensure that everything within our reach is done.”

South America’s weather is affected by the climate phenomenon El Nino, a periodic, naturally occurring event that warms surface waters in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean.

In Brazil, El Nino has historically caused droughts in the north and heavy rainfall in the south.

This year, the consequences of El Nino were particularly dramatic, with a historic drought in the Amazon.

Scientists say extreme weather is becoming more common due to human-induced climate change.