Brazil gov't rushes aid to flood victims, 32 dead

Rain continues to fall while waters leave more than 200,000 people homeless.

brazil flood salvador 248 88 (photo credit: )
brazil flood salvador 248 88
(photo credit: )
Brazil rushed aid Wednesday by air, over land and through rapidly rising waters to dozens of cities and towns isolated by floods that have killed at least 32 people and left more than 200,000 homeless. Some complained that aid wasn't coming fast enough to help flood victims deal with the disaster, which officials said is the worst rainfall and flooding that some parts of the region have seen in two decades. In an ominous sign that worried officials, rain continued to fall across a vast region stretching from the Amazon jungle to the northeastern Atlantic coast and meteorologists predicted the bad weather could last for weeks. Isolated looting was reported in communities cut off by flooding. People with pets and chickens jammed inside an abandoned hospital turned into a shelter. Some victims paddled canoes to retrieve belongings from inundated homes. Children called out for food. In three Amazon states, at least 3,000 Indians near rivers that overflowed fled to higher ground or into the jungle after seeing their crops of manioc, bananas and potatoes destroyed, said Sebastiao Haji Manchiner, executive secretary of the Brazilian Amazon Indigenous Organization. Rivers were rising as much as 30 centimeters a day in the hardest hit state of Maranhao, destroying bridges and making it too dangerous for relief workers to navigate some waterways. "There are some places where the water is so high that not even a boat can get to people," said army Lt. Ivar Araujo, in charge of 200 soldiers trying to help citizens in two towns where homes were submerged to their roof tiles and hundreds packed into shelters in gyms and schools on higher ground. The unusually heavy rains that have slammed the region for two months are now affecting 10 of Brazil's 26 states in a zone three times the size of Alaska. It stretches from the normally wet jungle to coastal states known for lengthy droughts, though not all parts of the states have been affected. Most victims drowned or were killed when mudslides swept over ramshackle homes, but authorities feared the situation could get much worse because many areas had been isolated for days without shipments of food or water. Civil defense workers used army helicopters to ferry in supplies to some places. Trucks laden with emergency shipments of food and water were forced to stop at highway washouts so aid workers could transfer the goods onto boats for delivery, said Abner Ferreira, a spokesman for Maranhao's civil defense department. Ferreira said there were reports of scattered looting, and some people refused to leave homes submerged in 1.5 meters of water to prevent their belongings from being stolen. Protests began emerging Wednesday night from flooded communities that aid was taking too long too arrive. In the Maranhao city of Bacabel, population about 70,000, officials said the displaced needed mattresses, blankets, personal hygiene products and drinking water. "We've only had 13 shipments and there are still a lot of isolated people in rural areas," Bacabel civil defense coordinator Roseane Silva told the state-run Agencia Brasil news agency. In the Para state city of Altamira, more rain fell in three hours than the jungle city of 90,000 normally gets in two months, Mayor Odileida Sampaio told Agencia Brasil. About 5,000 buildings were damaged, and nearly a third of the city's residents were forced from their homes - many of them rickety shacks atop stilts. "It's a complicated situation that is affecting mainly the poor and the business owners," Sampaio said. "Normally the Xingu River rises slowly, but this year it happened really quickly." Some victims said floodwaters rose so fast they barely managed to escape. "I didn't have time to get my things from the house, I lost everything," Francisca Antonia Gomes told Globo's G1 Web site in the state of Piaui, where 41,000 were displaced after the state had twice the normal amount of rain in April. Globo TV said planes and helicopters were unable to land in remote areas of Piaui to deliver aid and roads were impassable, leaving boats as the only option. Floods created a crater and a lake along the path of a key railway that takes iron ore from a jungle mine to an Atlantic port for export to steel mills. The railway owner, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA, said it was working on repairs and would reopen the railway as soon as possible. Meteorologists blamed the northern Brazil rains on an Atlantic Ocean weather system that typically moves on by April but hasn't budged this year. One thing the rains won't hurt is Brazil's environment, said Paulo Adario, coordinator of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign. "The rainforest and the animals that live in it have coexisted with floods for centuries," he said. "Floods are part of the annual cycle in the region." Nor is it expected to have any impact on long-standing land and natural resource disputes between Indians and settlers, said Luiz Claudio Teixeira, a missionary and member of the Roman Catholic Church-backed Indian Missionary Council. "Conflict between settlers and Indians is permanent in the region and will remain so with or without floods," he said. "They may lead to a temporary truce which will end as soon as the waters recede."