Record Floods Stun Brazil’s Northeast, Killing at Least 20

RIO DE JANEIRO — At least 20 people have been killed and more than 50,000 driven from their homes by calamitous floods sweeping through northeastern Brazil, the authorities said Tuesday.

The power of the waters coursing through the coastal terrain left Brazilians staggered.

“We’ve had other floods, other disasters with deaths, but nothing, absolutely nothing, with this territorial extension, with this number of cities hit at the same time and with the number of people impacted by this storm,” said Rui Costa, the governor of Bahia State.

As dams gave way, in some submerged neighborhoods rooftops were the only signs left of once-vibrant communities.

Rescue teams used boats and helicopters to gain entry to parts of Ilhéus, Itabuna, Irecê and a hundred other cities. Neighboring states sent aircraft and firefighters to help the police and members of the armed forces, while volunteers distributed donations of food, mattresses and blankets for the poorest communities.

Like regions large and small across a globe disrupted by climate change, Bahia has been experiencing weather extremes in recent years.

For the past five years, Bahia and its neighbors in the northeast have suffered from a stubborn drought. But early this month, the skies opened, and for weeks Bahia has been hit by extraordinary intermittent rainfall. It is the heaviest rainfall for December in the state in three decades, according to Brazil’s center for monitoring natural disasters.

The waters came for Gerisnon Vieira Lima and his family early one morning about two weeks ago in the city of Guaratinga, in southern Bahia.

As the water level rose rapidly inside the home he shares with his 70-year-old mother and three other relatives, Mr. Vieira Lima rushed to save any piece of furniture or belongings he could, though he figured he would have another chance.

“I thought we would come back after the rain went down — but we couldn’t,” the 35-year-old gas station attendant said.

As he watched, his home gave way to a torrent of rubble.

Since then, Mr. Vieira Lima and his family have been camped in his sister’s house as they try to recover from the trauma. “It was very sad, very hard,” he said. “I’ve never seen something like this.”

The situation grew even more dire over the Christmas holiday weekend after the extreme rain led to the collapse of two dams. The first burst in Vitória da Conquista, in the southern part of the state, on Saturday night, and the second on Sunday morning 125 miles north, in Jussiape.

“There are more than 116 municipalities in a state of emergency,” said a Brazilian congressman from Bahia, Valmir Assunção. “The rains destroyed bridges, roads and houses in our state.”

Natalie Unterstell, president of the Institute Talanoa, a climate policy think tank in Brazil, pointed out that the latest United Nation report offered “robust evidence” that such weather extremes are the result of climate change.

“The warming of the ocean is particularly relevant to this,” she said. “In 2020, data showed that 80 percent of the seas suffered maritime heat waves, and this boosted disasters such as the one in Bahia.”

Ms. Unterstell urged governments like that of Brazil to take climate change into account when rebuilding. “Brazil is built to a climate that no longer exists,” she said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Assunção and other lawmakers met to push for financial resources to rebuild the region. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, announced an emergency allotment of aid equivalent to $35 million.

In mid-December, when the rains began, President Bolsonaro flew over some of the hard-hit areas. But on Monday, as the rains peaked, he headed to the southern region of the country for the holiday. He is expected to return to Bahia early in the New Year.

“I hope I don’t need to come back earlier,” Mr. Bolsonaro told a supporter Monday after the dams collapsed, speaking from the sands of Forte beach, in São Francisco do Sul, local media reported.

The president has been criticized on social media for taking time off during the crisis.

“While our people suffer from hunger, unemployment, inflation, epidemics and natural disasters as in Bahia, Bolsonaro took vacations!” one opposition senator, Randolfe Rodrigues, said on Twitter. “Yes! Oblivious to all this, he thought he deserved a break, as a big joke with the Brazilian people.”

The flooding may also set back Brazil’s fight against the pandemic. Mr. Costa, the Bahia governor, said a few cities in his state had lost all their supplies of drugs and vaccines against Covid-19.

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