Rain and mudslides kill 29 people in ‘worst disaster’ in southern Brazil

CAPELA DE SANTANA (AFP) – Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva yesterday visited the south of the country, where floods and mudslides caused by heavy rains have killed 29 people, with the toll expected to rise.

Authorities in Rio Grande do Sul have declared a state of emergency as rescuers continue to search for dozens of missing people among the ruins of collapsed houses, bridges and roads.

Storm damage has affected nearly 150 communities across the state, also injuring 36 people and displacing more than 10,000.

Governor Eduardo Leite said Rio Grande do Sul was suffering “the worst disaster in history.”

“It is with the deepest pain in my heart that I know it will be worse,” the governor said of the death toll.

Lula, who has blamed the deluge on climate change, arrived in the city of Santa Maria with a delegation of ministers in the morning and held a working meeting with Leite and other officials to coordinate rescue efforts, the government said.

A resident of the Quilombo neighborhood rests in his flooded home in Sao Sebastiao do Cai, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil. PHOTO: AFP

The president promised “that there will be no shortage of human or material resources” to “minimize the suffering that this extreme event… causes in the state.”

The federal government, he added, “will be 100 percent at the disposal” of state officials.

Central authorities have already provided 12 planes, 45 vehicles, 12 boats and 626 soldiers to help clear roads, distribute food, water and mattresses and set up shelters, a press statement said.

As the rain continued, forecasts warned that the state’s main river, the Guaiba River, which has already burst its banks in some areas, would reach an extraordinary level of three meters yesterday and four meters today.

Entire communities in Rio Grande do Sul state have been completely cut off as persistent rains have destroyed bridges and blocked roads, leaving towns without phone or internet services.

Rescue workers and soldiers try to free families trapped in their homes. Many are stuck on roofs to escape rising waters.

“I’ve never seen anything like this… it’s all underwater,” said 52-year-old machine operator Raul Metzel in the municipality of Capela de Santana.

A dam collapsed in the city of Cotipora, causing water levels in the Taquari River to rise.

“I came here to help people, to get them out of the floods, because it is very dangerous.

The current is very strong,” said fisherman Guilverto Luiz, who helped with the rescue efforts in Sao Sebastiaio do Cai, about 70 kilometers from Porto Alegre, the state capital.

Authorities have urged people to avoid areas along national highways due to the risk of mudslides, and to evacuate those living near rivers or on hills.

Hundreds of thousands of people lack access to electricity and drinking water, while classes have been suspended across the state.