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

Capela de Santana, Brazil – Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited the south of the country on Thursday, 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, injuring at least a dozen people and displacing nearly 10,000.

Governor Eduardo Leite said Rio Grande do Sul was suffering “the worst disaster in history.” In a live broadcast, he updated the death toll from 13 earlier Thursday to 29, and the number of missing from 21 to 60.

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

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.

The president promised “that there will be no shortage of human or material resources” to “minimize the suffering caused by this extreme event 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 (9.8 feet) on Thursday and next day four meters.

– ‘Completely destroyed’ –

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

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 Raul Metzel, a 52-year-old machine operator in the municipality of Capela de Santana.

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.

On Wednesday, the state’s deputy governor, Gabriel Souza, said damage was estimated at $20 million.

Sinimbu Mayor Sandra Backes said the situation in her city was “a nightmare.”

“Sinimbu is like a war zone, completely destroyed… All shops, businesses, supermarkets – everything is destroyed,” she said in a video on Instagram.

Elsewhere, in Santa Cruz do Sul, lifeguards used boats to ferry residents, including many children, to safety.

The region’s rivers had already swollen from previous storms.

Last September, at least 31 people were killed when a cyclone hit the state.

South America’s largest country has recently suffered a series of extreme weather events, which experts say are made more likely by climate change.

The flooding came amid a cold front that battered the south and southeast, following a wave of extreme heat.