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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Images of a Brazilian city underwater

Porto Alegre is a city of 1.3 million situated alongside the Guaiba River. (Bruna Cabrera/Wikipedia)

By Ana Ionova and Tanira Lebedeff

Anderson da Silva Pantaleão was at the snack bar he owns last Friday when clay-colored water began filling the streets in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Soon, it was rushing into his ground-floor shop. By 9 p.m., the water was up to his waist.

“Then the fear starts to hit,” he said. “You’re just trying not to drown.”

He dashed up to a neighbor’s home on the second floor, taking refuge for the next three nights, rationing water, cheese and sausage with two others. Members of the group slept in shifts, fearing another rush of water could take them by surprise in the dead of night.

On Monday, water began flooding the second floor, and they thought the worst. Then, a military boat arrived and rescued Pantaleão, 43. A day later, despite heavy rains, he was trying to go back on a rescue boat to search for friends who were still missing or stranded.

“I can’t leave them there,” he said. “The water is running out. The food is running out.”

Brazil is grappling with one of its worst floods in recent history. Torrential rains have drenched the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, home to 11 million people, since late April and have triggered severe flooding that has submerged entire towns, blocked roads, broken a major dam and shut down the international airport until June.

At least 105 people have been killed, and 130 others have been reported missing. The floods, which have stretched across most of Rio Grande do Sul’s 497 municipalities, have forced nearly 164,000 people from their homes.

In the state capital, Porto Alegre, a city of 1.3 million perched on the banks of the Guaiba River, streets were submerged in murky water, and the airport was shuttered by the deluge, with flights canceled through the end of the month.

The river rose to over 16 feet this week, exceeding the previous high levels seen during a major flood in 1941 that paralyzed the city for weeks.

The flooding has blocked roads into the city and hampered deliveries of basic goods. Supermarkets were running out of bottled water Tuesday, and some residents reported walking up to 3 miles in search of clean drinking water.

Many of those stranded awaited help on rooftops. Some took desperate measures to flee: When the shelter her family was staying in flooded, Ana Paula de Abreu, 40, swam to a rescue boat while grasping her 11-year-old son under one arm. Two residents of one Porto Alegre neighborhood used an inflatable mattress to pull at least 15 people out of their inundated homes.

Search crews, which include authorities and volunteers, were scouring flooded areas and rescuing residents by boat and air. With nowhere to land, some helicopters have used winches to pull up people stranded by the flooding.

Barbara Fernandes, 42, a lawyer in Porto Alegre, spent hours on the scorching roof of her apartment building Monday, waving a red rag and her crutches toward the sky. A rescue helicopter finally spotted her in the late afternoon.

“You just don’t know when they’ll come for you,” said Fernandes, who is recovering from surgery on her ankle and could not flee her building before the waters rose.

Nearly 67,000 people were living in shelters across the state, while others have taken refuge in the homes of family or friends. Some people who had access to neither option were sleeping in their cars or on the streets in areas that were still dry.

“It seems like we’re living through the end of the world,” said Beatriz Belmontt Abel, 46, a nursing technician who was volunteering at a shelter in the city of Canoas, across the river from Porto Alegre. “I never imagined I would see this happen.”

In another shelter set up in a gym in Porto Alegre, volunteers distributed meals and clothes. Rows of mattresses lay on the floor, and cardboard boxes served as shelves. Those who had been rescued busied themselves sweeping the floor and making their temporary beds.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who visited the region last week, pledged federal funds to help the rescue efforts. State authorities have also announced aid to pay for search crews, health services and housing for those whose homes were destroyed or damaged by floodwaters.

Even as rescues continued, authorities worried that the crisis could worsen because another wave of severe weather was expected in the coming days. With a cold front buffeting the region, meteorologists have forecast heavy rains, hail, thunderstorms and winds over 60 mph.

The state’s governor, Eduardo Leite, said authorities were evacuating people from regions vulnerable to more turbulent weather. Some residents have refused to abandon their homes, fearing looting. Others have tried to return to their neighborhoods, hoping water levels will recede.

“It’s not time to go home,” Leite told reporters Tuesday.

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