The Big Flood: A Tale of Survival and Loss

Last Updated: June 18, 2024By

The Big Flood: A Tale of Survival and Loss

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When the crazy rain started to flood her neighborhood, Cristiane Batista, 34, grabbed her three kids, a couple of backpacks, and her phone. She stood by the door, hoping the city trucks would come to rescue them from Muçum in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul.

“I was so scared. Our house was going under water. We had to leave,” she says.

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Cristiane, her husband Jeferson, and their kids, ages one to eight, had already faced the wild weather of Brazil’s southern state twice last year. In September 2023, Muçum, with nearly 5,000 people, got hit hard by floods, leaving many people stranded and some dead, including 15 in one house alone.

“We lost everything,” she recalls.

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Just two months later, another massive storm hit. It destroyed their furniture and appliances and left mud stains all over the walls. After losing everything for the third time, Cristiane feels she can’t stay in the city anymore.

The State’s Biggest Disaster

Rio Grande do Sul, home to nearly 11 million people, has been through the worst climate disaster in its history. Between late April and early May, the area saw between a third and half of its annual rainfall in just 10 days—up to 700 millimeters in some places, according to Metsul Meteorologia.

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The downpour caused the Taquari, Caí, Pardo, Jacuí, Sinos, and Gravataí rivers to overflow.

The Civil Defense reports over 100 deaths, more than 130 missing, and nearly 400 injured in 425 affected towns.

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At least 232,125 people had to leave their homes. About 67,542 are in shelters, and 164,583 are homeless or staying with family or friends. Cities like Eldorado do Sul, Roca Sales, and Canoas got partly flooded, while small villages like Cruzeiro do Sul were wiped out. The governor, Eduardo Leite, called it “the greatest catastrophe of all.”

A City Underwater

Porto Alegre, the state capital and a major city, was one of the hardest hit. On May 5, the Guaíba River hit a record 5.35 meters, higher than the floods of 1941.

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Neighborhoods near the river were submerged. The airport closed, and power and water-treatment plants went down, causing blackouts and water shortages. A dam failure in the northern suburbs flooded a big part of the city.

From an army helicopter, Eldorado do Sul looked like Venice, with canals instead of streets. About 90% of the city was underwater. Along the BR-290 highway, hundreds of people waited for transport to shelters.

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The Science Behind the Storm

Joel Goldenfum, director of the Institute of Hydraulic Research at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, led research on this catastrophe. He explained that an extensive network of dykes, gates, a wall, and drainage pumps prevented even worse flooding. But years of poor maintenance showed their weaknesses.

“This system has worked well, but it’s already showing problems,” he says. “The gates and pumps have issues, and maintenance hasn’t been great, so the system didn’t hold up.”

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Why This Happened

Extreme floods used to be rare in Rio Grande do Sul. But scientists think climate change is making them more common.

Factors include strong wind currents, an atmospheric block after a heatwave, and a moisture corridor from the Amazon. All of these contributed to the heavy rain.

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Twenty years ago, climate researchers warned of more rain in southern Brazil and its effects. A more recent study by the National Institute of Meteorology found that days with “extreme precipitation” in Porto Alegre have more than doubled since the 1960s.

The Bigger Picture

Marcelo Dutra da Silva, an ecology professor, says these climate events are getting stronger with El Niño and La Niña periods. “Over time, rainfall patterns and temperatures have changed,” he says. “This causes climate and ecological problems and economic issues.”

In June 2022, Dutra warned that southern cities weren’t ready for natural disasters. “There’s no planning for risk areas or flood zones. There’s no environmental planning to deal with climate change,” he said.

Carlos Nobre, a top climatologist, adds that climate models predicted more rain in southern Brazil. He says, “What we see now is devastating. We need to plan for a climate that no longer exists.”

The Cost of Recovery

Brazil’s presidency can’t yet estimate the full damage or the cost of rebuilding since the water hasn’t gone down.

“The country will do everything to help rebuild and rehouse those who lost their homes,” it said. “Some properties might not be rebuilt in the same place due to the flood risk.”

On Thursday, the state governor gave a first damage estimate of about 19 billion reals (around £2.9 billion), which could increase.

Governor Leite, who has relaxed nearly 500 environmental regulations since 2019, says his administration will make a housing plan for flood victims. He compared the recovery needed to the Marshall Plan after World War II.

Porto Alegre’s mayor, Sebastião Melo, says they have done maintenance but admits the flood prevention system “is old.” With public pressure mounting for political leaders to act on climate adaptation, Melo focuses on rescue and shelter efforts. “Now isn’t the time to find culprits,” he says. “It’s time to find solutions.”

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