RIO DE JANEIRO – At least 20 people have been killed and more than 50,000 driven from their homes by catastrophic floods that swept through northeastern Brazil, authorities said on Tuesday.
The power of the waters that roamed the coastal terrain left Brazilians in awe.
“We have had other floods, other catastrophes with deaths, but nothing, absolutely nothing, with this territorial extension, with this number of cities affected at the same time and with the number of people affected by this storm”, a said Rui Costa, the governor of the state of Bahia.
When the dams gave way, in some submerged neighborhoods, roofs were the only remaining signs of once vibrant communities.
Rescue teams used boats and helicopters to enter parts of IlhÃ©us, Itabuna, IrecÃª and around 100 other towns. Neighboring states sent planes and firefighters to aid police and members of the armed forces, while volunteers distributed donated food, mattresses and blankets for poorer communities.
Like regions large and small across the world disrupted by climate change, Bahia has experienced extreme weather events in recent years.
Over the past five years, Bahia and its northeastern neighbors have suffered from persistent drought. But earlier this month, the skies opened and, for weeks, Bahia was hit by extraordinary intermittent rainfall. This is the heaviest precipitation for December in the state in three decades, according to the Brazilian center for the monitoring of natural disasters.
The waters arrived early one morning for Gerisnon Vieira Lima and her family about two weeks ago in the town of Guaratinga in southern Bahia.
As the water level rose rapidly inside the house he shares with his 70-year-old mother and three other parents, Mr. Vieira Lima rushed to save any furniture or belongings he could, even if he thought he would have another chance.
“I thought we would come back after the rain, but we couldn’t,” said the 35-year-old gas station attendant.
Before his eyes, his house gave way to a torrent of rubble.
Since then, Mr. Vieira Lima and his family have camped at his sister’s house as they try to recover from the trauma. âIt was very sad, very hard,â he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The situation became even more dire over the Christmas holiday weekend after extreme rains resulted in the collapse of two dams. The first erupted in VitÃ³ria da Conquista, in the south of the state, on Saturday evening, and the second on Sunday morning, 125 miles north, in Jussiape.
âThere are more than 116 municipalities in a state of emergency,â said Brazilian Congressman from Bahia, Valmir AssunÃ§Ã£o. âThe rains destroyed bridges, roads and homes in our state. “
Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa Institute, a think tank on climate policy in Brazil, pointed out that the latest United Nations report offered “strong evidence” that such extreme weather events are the result of climate change.
âThe warming of the ocean is particularly relevant in this regard,â she said. “In 2020, data showed that 80% of the seas suffered from maritime heat waves, exacerbating disasters such as the one in Bahia.”
Ms Unterstell urged governments like Brazil’s to take climate change into account when rebuilding. âBrazil is built for a climate that no longer exists,â she said.
On Tuesday, Mr. AssunÃ§Ã£o and other lawmakers gathered to mobilize financial resources to rebuild the region. The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, announcement emergency aid equivalent to $ 35 million.
In mid-December, when the rains started, 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 holidays. He is expected to return to Bahia at the start of the new year.
“I hope I don’t need to come back sooner,” Bolsonaro told a supporter Monday after the dams collapsed, speaking from the sands of Forte Beach in SÃ£o Francisco do Sul, local media reported.
The president has been criticized on social media for taking time off during the crisis.
âWhile our people suffer from hunger, unemployment, inflation, epidemics and natural disasters like in Bahia, Bolsonaro has taken a vacation! an opposition senator, Randolfe Rodrigues, said on twitter. âYes! Unaware of it all, he thought he deserved a break, like a big joke with the Brazilian people.
Flooding could also delay Brazil’s fight against the pandemic. Mr Costa, the governor of Bahia, said a few towns in his state had lost all their supplies of drugs and vaccines against Covid-19.