Southern Brazil has suffered its worst floods in more than 80 years, killing at least 39 people

Heavy rains in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul have killed 39 people, while another 68 are missing, the state civil protection agency said on Friday, as record-breaking floods devastated towns and forced thousands to leave their homes.

It was the fourth environmental disaster in a year, after floods in July, September and November 2023 that killed a total of 75 people.

According to Brazil’s Geological Survey, the statewide flooding is greater than that of a historic deluge in 1941. In some cities, water levels were at their highest level since records began nearly 150 years ago, the agency said.

On Thursday, a dam at a hydroelectric power station between the towns of Bento Goncalves and Cotipora partially collapsed and entire towns in the Taquari River valley, such as Lajeado and Estrela, were completely overtaken by water. In the city of Feliz, 80 kilometers from the capital, Porto Alegre, a hugely swollen river has swept away a bridge connecting the city to the neighboring town of Linha Nova.

Operators reported power, communications and water outages across the state. According to civil protection, more than 24,000 people had to leave their homes.

Without internet, phone service or electricity, residents struggled to provide updates or information to their relatives living in other states. Helicopters flew continuously over the cities as stranded families with children waited on the roofs for rescue.

Isolete Neumann, 58, who lives in the town of Lajeado in the Taquari River valley, told The Associated Press that she had never before seen a scenario like the one she is experiencing now.

“People were making barricades in front of hospitals with sand and gravel. It felt like a horror movie,” she said on the phone. Some people in her region were so desperate, she added, that they threw themselves into the floodwaters.

Neumann’s own neighborhood wasn’t flooded, but it doesn’t have running water and she hasn’t showered since Tuesday. She said she collects rainwater in a basin so she can cook. A clothing store she owns in the city center is underwater, she added.

“I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be like. There should be nothing left.”

The downpour started on Monday and is expected to continue at least until Saturday, Marcelo Seluchi, chief meteorologist at the National Center for Monitoring and Alerting of Natural Disasters, told Brazilian public television on Friday.

On Thursday evening, Governor Eduardo Leite warned the state’s population – known as gauchos – about the persistent rain and flooding. The situation in Porto Alegre was expected to deteriorate, he said.

“As a human being, I am broken inside, just like any gaucho,” he said. “But as governor, I am standing firm here and I guarantee that we will not waver. We do everything with focus, attention, discipline and outrage, to ensure that everything within our reach is done.”

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recognized the flood victims at a press conference Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Brasilia.

“Minister Fumio Kishida’s first words during the meeting we held were of solidarity with the people of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, who are victims of one of the greatest floods we have ever known. Never before in the history of Brazil had so much rain fallen in a single location,” said Lula.

South America’s weather is affected by the climate phenomenon El Nino, a periodic, naturally occurring event that warms surface waters in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. In Brazil, El Nino has historically caused droughts in the north and heavy rainfall in the south.

This year, the consequences of El Nino were particularly dramatic, with a historic drought in the Amazon. Scientists say extreme weather is becoming more common due to human-induced climate change.

Karina Lima, a 36-year-old scientist and doctoral candidate in climatology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, told The Associated Press that the state is in a region with certain characteristics that amplify El Nino’s destructive potential.

“Models have long predicted that Rio Grande do Sul will continue to see increases in average annual precipitation and extreme precipitation, meaning more concentrated and heavier rainfall,” she said.