In Southern Brazil, Rescue Efforts Continue as Ongoing Flooding Leaves Hundreds of Thousands Displaced

Rescue workers in helicopters and on jet skis are patrolling the flooded streets of Rio Grande do Sul to find survivors after brutal storms tore through the region.

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The Santa Rita neighborhood in the city of Guaiba, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, has experienced severe flooding since the rain began. Credit: ANSELMO CUNHA/AFP via Getty Images

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At the end of April, the floodgates opened in southern Brazil. 

For days, heavy rains pummeled the Rio Grande do Sul state, triggering widespread flooding that has killed at least 150 people and displaced more than 600,000. Some areas saw more than 20 inches of precipitation—equivalent to the amount of rain typically seen over several months in this region. 

Weeks later, parts of the country are still underwater. Though the storms have stopped for now, the flooding has not yet receded and rescue efforts are in full force. The event was likely linked to warm ocean temperatures from El Niño weather patterns, and scientists have pointed to the broader trend of climate change “juicing” these types of natural patterns to fuel record storms. 

For today’s newsletter, I am taking a look at some of the impacts and audacious rescue efforts happening across southern Brazil—and why scientists say this event may be foreshadowing of climate disasters to come around the world. 

The Storm’s Aftermath: Because the water has not yet receded, the true toll of southern Brazil’s flooding is currently unknown. But photographs offer a peek into the utter devastation already seen across the region. 

When the rain first cleared, the rooftops of homes in Porto Alegre, the capital city of Rio Grande do Sul, were the only things visible on residential streets that had transformed into canals. The Beira-Rio stadium—which hosted some of the 2014 World Cup—held a brown soup of rainwater, which has since been drained (though soccer games are suspended for the next few weeks). Dilapidated dikes built decades ago to protect the region from flooding failed during the storm, and are now instead doing the opposite job by trapping water inside, CNN reports

Amid the fallout, crime has spiked. In the past several weeks, authorities have arrested more than 97 people for theft, looting and sexual abuse, according to safety departments in the region. Families without anywhere else to go have been forced into pop-up safety shelters, including a university sports hall that is currently home to about 6,000 people who sleep on mattresses scattered across the floor. 

“I came here with just the clothes on my back. Nothing, nothing at all,” 71-year-old Albertina Simonetti told BBC News

Humans aren’t the only ones that have been hit hard by the floods; an estimated 12,600 hogs and hundreds of thousands of poultry in flooded factory farms died in the deluge, and numerous companion animals remain stranded across the region. 

Without active rainfall, the majority of the water still flooding southern Brazil is coming from the Guaíba Lake, and the river floodplains upstream. Scientists believe that flooding will continue until the end of May.

Audacious Rescue Efforts: Around 31,000 soldiers, police and emergency service workers have been deployed across Rio Grande do Sul to rescue more than 69,000 people and 10,000 animals, according to the country’s army and government. 

However, misinformation has spread as fast as water has pooled across the south Brazilian state. Government officials say social media posts urged people to ignore emergency warnings when the storm hit, and new campaigns have falsely spread that workers are no longer making rescue attempts. 

“When we stop everything to respond to fake news, we’re diverting public resources and energy away from what really matters, which is serving the public,” Brazil’s Attorney General Jorge Messias told the Associated Press. 

As government-supported rescue workers continue to patrol from the sky, a community-led recovery network is growing on the ground (and in the water). Evaldo Becker and Piedro Tuchtenhagen, Brazilian rowers set to compete in the Olympics in a few months, have dropped their training to help other volunteers on rescues and with aid. Similarly, a team of big-wave surfers used their knowledge of the water to weave the flooded streets on jet skis and save those who are still stranded. 

“Our team came in strong, putting all the experience from the big wave surfing and difficult water from Nazare and all the big-wave places,” surfer Lucas Chianca told Surfer Magazine. “We were trying to save lives, just trying to help out everybody here.”

Animals are getting a helping hand, too: In the Canoas area, around 200 volunteers have created a makeshift dog shelter to rescue and house pets. The nation rallied around a horse nicknamed Caramelo that was trapped on a narrow strip of roof in the state before being retrieved on May 9 by a crew of rescue workers

A Climate Omen: Scientists have not yet established a direct climate change link with this particular storm. However, there is a vast body of evidence showing how human-caused warming has fueled severe bouts of extreme flooding and droughts in southern Brazil, which have the potential to upend cities and transform the Amazon rainforest

Over the past decade, 90 percent of the areas affected by this storm have experienced at least one flood from heavy rainfall, research shows. And efforts to fortify the region against mounting climate impacts are not keeping pace. 

A CNN analysis found that investments in flood prevention systems by the government of Porto Alegre decreased from 2021 to 2022 and were not featured in the 2023 annual budget at all. Some have dubbed the event Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s “Hurricane Katrina moment,” reports Bloomberg, because the country was caught relatively unprepared, similar to the U.S. when the destructive hurricane slammed New Orleans in 2005 during former President George W. Bush’s term. 

The Brazilian federal government has pledged $10 billion to help rebuild Rio Grande do Sul and reimburse businesses for their losses. However, experts say the government needs to also focus on preventing this level of destruction from happening in the first place—and that events like this won’t be isolated to Brazil alone. 

“Risk mitigation projects and disaster prevention measures have been shelved for years across all levels of government,” Cristiane Fontes (Krika), the executive director of the World Resources Institute-Brazil, wrote in a commentary. “But in many ways, this is not a disaster of Brazil’s making. The whole planet is experiencing increasingly rapid climate changes due largely to the greenhouse gases produced by a handful of wealthy nations.”

More Top Climate News

On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. With more than 1 million species at risk of extinction worldwide, this might not sound like a big deal, but an endangered listing means that federal agencies are required to take steps to protect the species, despite potentially negative impacts for industry. 

In this case, the sand-colored lizards’ listing could restrict future oil and gas development in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas that has decimated its habitat in the past, reports the Associated Press. The USFWS will soon be deciding whether to also list the monarch butterfly as endangered at a nationwide level. 

Meanwhile, howler monkeys are dropping dead from the trees in southeastern Mexico due to dehydration amid a heat wave that has topped 113 degrees in some areas, reports NBC News. Volunteers are placing buckets of water and food around the tropical forests to help prevent more deaths. The ongoing heat wave in southeast Asia has also been roasting animals on land and in the water across the region. 

In other news, a recent study found microplastics in human testicles of 23 tested individuals, and more than 40 pet dogs, which could pose potential risks to sperm counts, the researchers say, though more testing is needed. The findings aren’t necessarily surprising given that people are known to consume and breathe in microplastics on a daily basis, but scientists are still uncovering the long-term health impacts of these ubiquitous particles.

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