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Rain showers in southern Brazil kill at least 39 people, with about 70 still missing

(Reuters) – Heavy rains in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, have killed 39 people, local authorities said on Friday, and the death toll is expected to rise as dozens of people remain unaccounted for.

Rio Grande do Sul’s Civil Protection Authority said 68 people were still missing and at least 24,000 had been displaced as the storms hit more than half of the 497 towns in the state, which borders Uruguay and Argentina.

“These numbers could change significantly in the coming days as we gain access to more regions,” Rio Grande do Sul Governor Eduardo Leite told reporters.

In several cities, streets effectively turned into rivers, destroying roads and bridges. The storm also caused landslides and the partial collapse of a dam structure at a small hydroelectric power station.

A second dam in the town of Bento Goncalves is also at risk of collapse, authorities said. They ordered people living nearby to evacuate.

In Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, the Guaiba River burst its banks and flooded streets blocked access to the city’s historic central districts.

The state is located at a geographic meeting point between tropical and polar atmospheres, creating a weather pattern that includes periods of intense rainfall and other periods of drought.

Local scientists believe the pattern has increased due to climate change.

Heavy rains had already hit Rio Grande do Sul last September, when an extratropical cyclone caused flooding that killed more than 50 people.

This came after more than two years of persistent drought due to the La Nina phenomenon, with only sparse showers.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva traveled to the state on Thursday to visit the affected locations and discuss rescue efforts with the governor.

Back in Brasilia, Lula vowed Friday that his government would support local rescue and reconstruction efforts.