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Heavy rains have caused more than 640 deaths in the mountainous region of the state of Rio de Janeiro, as well as death and losses in neighboring Minas Gerais state.
In the state of Goiás, floods threaten historic sites such as Cidade de Goiás, the only city in the state designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
But in the south, another catastrophe is wreaking havoc: a drought reaching historic levels has inflicted losses that already exceed R$140 million (US$87 million).
Minas Gerais home to largest number of flood victims
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Minas Gerais is the Brazilian state with the greatest number of victims displaced by the flooding that has engulfed the region.
From the beginning of the heaviest rains in early November to Jan. 16, 17,180 people have been forced to relocate and 2,374 have been rendered homeless, according to Civil Defense officials.
Of the 853 state’s municipalities, at least 130 registered floods, windstorms, landslides or mudslides, with 81 declaring a state of emergency.
In total, the floods have affected more than 1.2 million and are responsible for 16 dead and 72 injured.
The rains also have gravely damaged the state’s infrastructure. From November through Jan. 16, 104 bridges were destroyed and another 339 partially damaged.
As of the evening of Jan. 15, nine sections of a highway in Minas Gerais had been closed, mostly due to barrier collapses. Two rail routes have also been shut down – one in Lavras, Campo das Vertentes, and a second in Juiz de Fora, Zona da Mata.
But the situation is even worse in the south. One of the affected cities is São Lourenço, where streets are still submerged after being flooded on Jan. 13.
Gov. Antônio Anastasia, upon visiting the flooded region, said the Development Bank of Minas Gerais (BDMG) will allocate funding to help rebuild businesses that have been damaged or destroyed.
On Jan. 14, the state’s fire department said it has created a special battalion to respond to rain-related incidents. Three hundred fifty military personnel trained in search and rescue resulting from flooding, mudslides and heavy rains have been deployed to the areas hardest hit by the catastrophe.
Minas Gerais citizens also are worried about what’s happening in the Serrana Region of neighboring Rio de Janeiro. Hospitals in the cities of Além Paraíba and Juiz de Fora, just across the border from Rio de Janeiro, were designated as shelters for flood victims.
“Our role is to assist victims who have already been pre-treated and stabilized in the field hospitals that have been erected there (in Rio’s Serrana Region),” said Juiz de Fora’s Health Secretary, Claudio Reiff. “Those patients requiring further treatment are sent here. All our city’s public hospitals are at the ready.”
Businesses, sports clubs and individuals across Minas Gerais have joined forces to collect and distribute food and water to the victims in Rio de Janeiro.
World heritage site threatened in Cidade de Goiás
BRASÍLIA, Brazil – Cidade de Goiás, the only city in Goiás designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in danger of having its historical areas severely damaged – and perhaps destroyed.
The damage caused by the heavy rains that fell on the municipality two weeks ago prompted Mayor Joaquim Berquó to declare a state of emergency on Jan. 13.
Culture Minister Ana de Hollanda, after visiting Goiás Velho – the local nickname of Cidade de Goiás – on Jan. 13, said she has allocated R$500,000 (US$300,000) for the repair and maintenance of historic buildings. The city’s historic center contains about 800 collapsed buildings.
“Cidade de Goiás is different from other cities,” Hollanda said, according to a statement on the Ministry’s website. “It is essential to our collective memory, the history of Brazil.”
Fifty houses are in danger of collapsing, two centuries-old mansions were destroyed completely, eight bridges were damaged and l23 people have been rendered homeless, according to the Fire Department.
A team of 10 analysts from the National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan) are working to prevent the collapse of more homes.
The house of poet Cora Coralina – the city’s most important landmark – also has been condemned.
The property is located on the banks of the Vermelho River, which overflowed on Jan. 10. The basement of the museum was flooded with muddy water, forcing officials to rush to save artifacts.
Southern Brazil suffers from drought
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – As Southeastern Brazil suffers from disastrous flooding, it’s the lack of rain that’s causing damage throughout the south.
Since August of last year, precipitation levels have remained below the lowest historical averages documented in the past 40 years.
The soil is cracked.
Emaciated cattle walk the countryside with nothing to eat, since grass is sparse.
Some animals die of starvation.
The artesian wells that once supplied residences are now dry. Water comes only when water trucks make their rounds, attempting to bring relief.
Scenes such as these, once restricted to Brazil’s rugged northeast, are now a routine part of life in Rio Grande do Sul, which has suffered severe drought for years.
But this summer the drought, which has been attributed to the meteorological phenomenon La Niña, has been stronger than ever. The cooling of the Pacific Ocean significantly has reduced the amount of rain in southern Brazil during the summer months of December to March.
The Campanha Region is the hardest hit, with damages already totaling R$140 million (US$87 million).
Eight municipalities have declared a state of emergency: Candiota, Herval, Pedras Altas, Hulha Negra, Santana do Livramento, Pedro Osório, Lavras do Sul and Cerrito. Others – Bagé, Piratini, Pinheiro Machado and Aceguá – are awaiting approval from civil defense authorities to do so.
In Candiota, one of the cities hardest hit by the lack of water, 600 families living in rural areas depend directly on the supply from two water trucks working nonstop to keep up with demand.
Dairy farming – the city’s economic backbone – has been particularly affected because the priority has been providing water for residents, not cattle.
“We are stepping up distribution because the water is running dry in the wells,” says Candiota Mayor Luiz Carlos Folador.
Some cattle farmers are taking their herds out of the city in search of areas that haven’t been devastated by the drought.
“This week we had a breeder take eight truckloads of cattle off to other cities in search of green pasture,” Folador says.
Prevention is key
The drought-afflicted municipalities are asking their state governments for comprehensive preventive policies so they won’t have to worry about the water supply again. They are also seeking funding for the construction of new dams and wells and for the renovation of existing ones.
They’re also asking for tanks to store rainwater.
Palliative measures, like distributing food and drinking water, already have been taken.
The Civil Defense of Rio Grande do Sul sent 300 care packages and 50 water filters to families in rural Candiota. More than seven tons of food were sent to Herval.
In coming days, more cities should receive aid, officials said.
In the city of Bagé, water is being rationed in 12-hour periods.
“It’s a critical situation,” says electricity supplier Carlos Eber Dias Pereira, 46. “We have families who stay up until dawn to take advantage of the 12 hours in which they have water and can shower, wash dishes and do all their household chores.”
Losses in the Campanha Region are estimated at more than 50% of the state’s corn, soybean and sorghum crops, according to the Association for Technical Assistance and Rural Extension Businesses of Rio Grande do Sul (Emater).
Pereira also has been following the agony of his relatives in rural areas.
“They’ve lost everything: their entire crop of corn, and everything else that has dried up,” he says. “Their cattle are dying. The situation is horrible.”