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At least 39 dead in worst flooding in southern Brazil in 80 years

Residents and their pets evacuate a flooded area after heavy rain in Sao Sebastiao do Cai, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, May 2, 2024.
Residents and their pets evacuate a flooded area after heavy rain in Sao Sebastiao do Cai, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, May 2, 2024.

Heavy rains in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul killed 39 people, with 68 more missing, the state civil defense agency said Friday, as record floods devastated cities and forced thousands to leave their homes.

It was the fourth such environmental disaster in a year, following floods in July, September and November 2023 that killed 75 people in total.

The flooding statewide has surpassed that seen during a historic 1941 deluge, according to the Brazilian Geological Service. In some cities, water levels were at their highest since records began nearly 150 years ago, the agency said.

On Thursday, a dam at a hydroelectric plant between the cities of Bento Goncalves and Cotipora partially collapsed and entire cities in the Taquari River valley, like Lajeado and Estrela, were completely overtaken by water. In the town of Feliz, 80 kilometers from the state capital, Porto Alegre, a massively swollen river swept away a bridge that connected it with the neighboring city of Linha Nova.

Operators reported electricity, communications and water cuts across the state. More than 24,000 people had to leave their homes, according to the civil defense agency.

Without internet, telephone service or electricity, residents struggled to provide updates or information to their relatives living in other states. Helicopters flew continually over the cities while stranded families with children awaited rescue on the rooftops.

Isolete Neumann, 58, lives in the city of Lajeado in the Taquari River valley and told The Associated Press she has never before seen what she is seeing now.

"People were making barricades in front of hospitals with sand and gravel. It felt like a horror movie," she said by phone. Some people in her region were so desperate, she added, that they threw themselves into the water currents.

Neumann's neighborhood wasn't inundated but has no running water and she hasn't showered since Tuesday. She said she's collecting rainwater in a basin so she can cook. A clothing store she owns in the city's central area is flooded, she added.

The downpour started Monday and is expected to last at least through Saturday, Marcelo Seluchi, chief meteorologist at the National Center for Monitoring and Alerts of Natural Disasters, told Brazil's public television network Friday.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva acknowledged the flood victims at a press conference on Friday alongside Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Brasilia.

"The first words from Minister Fumio Kishida in the meeting we held were of solidarity with the people of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, who are victims by one of the largest floods we have ever known. Never before in the history of Brazil had there been such a quantity of rain in one single location," Lula said.

Weather across South America is affected by the climate phenomenon El Niño, a periodic, naturally occurring event that warms surface waters in the Equatorial Pacific region. In Brazil, El Niño has historically caused droughts in the north and intense rainfall in the south.

This year, the impacts of El Niño have been particularly dramatic, with a historic drought in the Amazon. Scientists say extreme weather is happening more frequently because of human-caused climate change.