A city in southern Brazil is forced to adapt after floods shut down a major airport

Porto Alegre, the capital of Brazil’s southernmost state, has had to adapt after the metropolitan area of roughly 4.5 million people lost its only international airport. A month ago, unprecedented flooding sank major parts of the city. The rains have continued and the city’s airport is still underwater. So, officials have gotten creative.

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Just inside the main entrance to the ParkShopping Canoas mall, people stand waiting in a long line, carrying backpacks and rolling luggage. On the wall beside them is a cartoon drawing of a big white airplane painted on a blue background. The words “Terminal ParkShopping Canoas” hover above.

This is the check-in for the Canoas Air Force Base, which is located a few miles away — the new substitute airport for Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. It’s become the new hub for flights in and out of the city since devastating floods hit the region, rendering the main airport inoperable.

ParkShopping Canoas mall is serving as a hub for airport check-ins in Brazil after flooding shut down the main airport.Michael Fox/The World

“We have to adapt, right?” said 28-year-old mechanical engineer Vidara Rodrigues, who is flying back to São Paulo — the main destination for flights leaving the region. “Unfortunately, that’s our only option. But I think it’s well organized and everyone’s really doing their best to make this work.”

Passengers are greeted for the airport check-in just like at the actual airport, complete with dividers showing people where to line up. In this case, though, they are surrounded by shoppers and there’s even a mini ice skating rink nearby. The passengers are used to the drill, but this is definitely different. Uniformed employees guide them toward the counter, and a bus departs about an hour and a half before the flight to drive passengers to the military base.

People wait in line to check in at the Porto Alegre substitute airport in southern Brazil.Courtesy of Billy Valdez/Coletivo Catarse

“I think this was a great idea,” said Artur Suzuki Kano, a dentist also headed to Sao Paulo. “Because, like it or not, it’s the only airport or air base that can really serve this area.”

LATAM Airlines ran the first flight into Canoas last week. On Saturday, two more airlines, Gol and Azul, began services. Together, they’ll be offering five flights in and out of the city each day.

A scene of Ilhas underwater. Michael Fox/the World

The frequency of flights has also increased at seven other airports across southern Brazil to try to meet demand.

“With these airports, along with the Canoas flights, we hope to do more than 280 additional flights to the region in June,” said LATAM pilot Derick Barboza, who spoke with a Brazilian news outlet last week, after flying in on the first flight.

That’s still less than 10% of the total flights in and out of Porto Alegre on an average month. But it’s a start.

ParkShopping Canoas mall in Brazil that is doubling up as an airport check-in location.Michael Fox/The World

Unprecedented floods

The unprecedented floods have continued to wreak havoc on Porto Alegre and the region. The country’s south received three months’ worth of rain in just two weeks. Because the rain won’t stop, the water is also taking a long time to recede. Half a million people are still unable to return to their homes.

“We’re living one day at a time,” said 21-year-old Alisson Padilha da Silva, who was in a shelter for days after his family lost everything to the floods. He works at a sporting goods store in the mall, just across from check-in.

“We’re living one day at a time.”

Alisson Padilha da Silva, resident of Porto Alegre

“Psychologically, I’m really shaken,” he said. “I saw a lot of things. But I had to get back to work. I had to get back to my routine. I have to work to buy my things back.”

A scene of Ilhas underwater. Michael Fox/The World

He said that for stores at the mall, the airport check-in here has been a great thing. 

“The number of customers has gone up a lot,” he said. “There are people asking for things that we don’t have, so we’ve started stocking things we never thought of before.”

The situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. 

Downtown Porto Alegre amid massive flooding across southern Brazil.Michael Fox/The World

Porto Alegre’s international airport remains underwater. Planes sitting on the runway look like giant birds floating on a lake. Officials, who visited it on Monday, say it won’t be ready until December.

“I think we need a goal. Like, for example, getting it operational by Christmas,” said Paulo Pimenta, the government minister leading the reconstruction effort in the state. “The body overseeing the airport has said that all navigation and signaling equipment will need to be repurchased. If the order were placed today, for example, we would only receive it in four months,” he explained.

“Furthermore, this order can only be made after we have completed a thorough review of all the damage, and that will take 45 days, on top of the time we will need for testing and installation.”

Eduardo Neves and his mother had to reschedule their trip to Rio de Janeiro four times because of massive flooding in the southern Brazil region.Courtesy of Billy Valdez/Coletivo Catarse

Passenger Eduardo Neves said he went to see the state of the airport for himself a few weeks ago. 

“It was total chaos. Totally flooded,” he said.

Neves was flying to Rio de Janeiro with his mom. It’s a trip they had scheduled for the beginning of May. But then the floods hit and it had to be rescheduled four times.

“We’re finally going,” he said. “It’s a little complicated because we aren’t used to this process. But it’s easier to come here than to any of the other airports in the region that are farther away.”

Buses are the other main means of transportation in and out of Porto Alegre. But the city’s bus terminal has also been underwater, so interstate transportation has been running through the town of Osorio about an hour and a half away. 

A scene from Ilhas underwater.Michael Fox/The World

Airline industry analysts say Brazil has never had an international airport knocked out like this for months, so these are make-shift solutions in times of crisis. Nor has there been a need to substitute in an air force base.

And, for now, it seems to be working.

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