Floodwaters in southern Brazil remain a threat​​

Large parts of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil are still waterlogged three weeks after heavy rains flooded the state. Local and federal governments have promised to rebuild homes and businesses. But people are still digging out and, as Michael Fox reports, more rain is in the forecast.

The World

A trickle of flood waters in Porto Alegre, Brazil, can be seen slowly washing out of the city. It doesn’t mean the city’s dry yet. A video posted on social media Sunday shows the iconic public market still underwater. The waters of the Guaiba River, which have engulfed the city, are still 12 feet above normal.

Tremendous floods have ravaged the Southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul in recent weeks. But streets that have been covered for weeks are now appearing.

“Right now, we are seeing what was under the waters,” said Gustavo Türck, a journalist with the Porto Alegre media collective, Catarse. “It’s a feeling of sadness to see the city destroyed. And there is a ton of destruction.”

As flood waters begin to recede, some residents are able to see the roadways.Courtesy of Billy Valdez/Coletivo Catarse

Mud and trash are everywhere. Homes need to be gutted or torn down and completely rebuilt.

“People are cleaning everywhere, taking things out of the homes and putting them in the street,” said Türck. “The city is trying to stand up straight, but we know that this will take a long time.”

This is not the first time Porto Alegre has flooded. 

In 1941, floodwater rose to almost as high as it did this month, also destroying major parts of the city. In response, Porto Alegre built an extensive flood protection system … It worked well. But in the last few years, resources for maintenance and repair have been gutted. When the waters rose this time, many pumps and floodgates failed.

“I don’t think most people living in Porto Alegre would ever have imagined the the the scale of the tragedy, right, the scale of the flood that’s happening now,” said Rafael Ioris, a Brazilian professor of Latin American politics at the University of Denver, who grew up in Rio Grande do Sul.

Fabio Ribeiro’s home and shoe store have been underwater for the past two weeks.

“We have absolutely no money,” he said. “I don’t even have money for the bus. I’m walking across the town to pick up a bag of food from the city. And it’s three miles from where we’re staying.”

The waters in Ribeiro’s neighborhood still cover the street in front of his home, but they’ve dropped enough for him to get inside. 

“We’re going to the house tomorrow,” he said. “We’re gonna have to walk through the water to get there, to see the level of destruction and also see how much they looted, too.”

Ribeiro’s home was one of many ransacked by people seeking to profit from the crisis.

But at least their home is still standing. 

This is the reality for people across the region. But they have been promised help. Last week, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silvia visited shelters in the town of São Leopoldo

He met a boy who told him that his “house fell backward.” 

“We are gonna build a new home for everyone who lost one. Everyone.” 

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silvia

“We’re gonna get you a new one,” said the president, widely known as Lula. “We are gonna build a new home for everyone who lost one. Everyone.” 

Lula has announced his government will issue roughly $1,000 to 200,000 families impacted by the floods. He’s promised $10 billion US dollars in aid for the region, and the BRICS development bank has committed another billion dollars.

The director of the country’s new reconstruction agency, Paulo Pimenta, told a Brazilian media outlet over the weekend that their greatest challenge is how to carry out the transition from now until new houses are built and people can move in.

“There are some 80,000 people in shelters,” he said. “Some may be able to return home. Others not. And there is a huge universe of people that are not in shelters, but who also don’t have homes to return to.”

With flood water receding, some residents are able to return home. However, officials say about 80,000 people are currently in shelters.Courtesy of Billy Valdez/Coletivo Catarse

The level of destruction and plans for reconstruction are unprecedented. The floods impacted over 90% of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is roughly the size of Nevada, with almost four times the population.

Right now, the focus is on taking care of people’s immediate needs. 

Freezing temperatures and more rain are on the horizon. Forecasters say the region could be hit again by torrential downpours later this week.

Porto Alegre city residents hope to get back on their feet soon, but many also hope to hold city officials accountable for the lack of preparedness. The greatest flooding prevention system in the world is worthless if it can’t keep out the floodwaters.

“It’s a very bad situation that perhaps could not be fully prevented because it deals with managing an extensive bay with all the different rivers that come together in that area,” Ioris said.

“But of course there has been a human impact in the region in terms of deforestation over decades and the resources to handle a flood like this. So it is a nature and man-made situation.”

The World Listener Survey 2024

We’d love to hear your thoughts on The World. Please take our 5-min. survey.