Rains, destruction and deaths in the south of Brazil demand a new term to define a climate catastrophe

People in downtown Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul's capital, after the city was invaded by the Guaíba River's waters, this May 5, 2024. Photo by Gustavo Mansur/Palácio Piratini ( CC BY-NC 2.0).

On April 27, MetSul, a meteorology agency, posted on X (former Twitter) a warning about a cold front, heavy rain, gales, and hail, and risks of severe weather in parts of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state. This is the same state that endured three climate disasters in 2023 alone, with 75 people confirmed dead and many cities hit.

The following day, the agency posted another alert: ”Serious risk of floods in southern Brazil because of excessive to extreme rain. It has already rained 200 mm [8 inches] in some areas and projections indicate much more water coming. 2023 scenes of flooded cities will be repeated.”

Two days later, they began to post about overflowing creeks, rising river levels, and flooding while The National Institute of Meteorology (Inmet) put the entire state under alert, showing a varying scale from yellow to red, the latter being the larger portion. On April 30, the local government confirmed eight dead and 21 people disappeared.

Ever since the publication of this story on May 7, the worst natural disaster in the history of Rio Grande do Sul has registered 100 dead, 128 disappeared, and over 1.4 million people affected. Sums that seem still underreported when one sees the images of entire cities underwater.

Among the 497 cities in the state, 414 were hit so far. And, as you read it, there is a chance people are still waiting on roofs for rescue, trapped in houses and buildings surrounded by water. Others are still looking for victims of landslides; and many are without access to clean water, power, or ways of coming and going from their cities, with bridges missing and roads destroyed. The rain is moving south and is forecasted to return to other cities already impacted.

Sinimbu was one of the first cities hit and destroyed by the rains and floods in Rio Grande do Sul. Photo by Gustavo Mansur/Palácio Piratini (CC BY-NC 2.0).

In September 2023, after the worst climate disaster Rio Grande do Sul had registered at the time, re-elected governor Eduardo Leite (PSDB, Social Democracy Party) said in an interview for Globo News TV channel that ”math models couldn't foresee the volume of rains.” This time, there isn't any surprise.

An expert quoted by Deutsch Welle says the state became a target now because of an overlay of weather phenomenons, like recent heat waves and the influence of El Niño. Although Marcelo Seluchi, coordinator of Cemaden (National Center of Monitoring and Alert for Natural Disasters), says no place in the world would be able to resist this situation, ”there could have been contingency and prevention plans.” ”You can't do it from one week to the other. This is something missing,” he said.

Scenes of a catastrophe

The first cities hit by the local catastrophe that swallowed Rio Grande do Sul registered landslides, bridges destroyed and floods that covered cities and highways, making help even more difficult to arrive.

This place is at the line between cities of Bento Gonçalves and Veranópolis, in the Arches’ bridge, a rural area. People used to go there to enjoy pubs and restaurantes around, with local cuisine. We had houses and restaurants, an important road. There is nothing anymore.

NOW | An historical front page and one of the most impactful ones in the 100 years of Correio do Povo newspaper, in a special edition this Friday, with the image of Taquari Valley submerged and lightning in the background with the storm.

In the state capital, Porto Alegre, the Guaíba River surpassed an 83-year historic mark when it reached 4.77 meters of elevation. It has reached 5.3 meters now — its system limit to cause a flood is 3 meters. Neighborhoods that had never registered floods had to be evacuated, but many residents remained isolated in their homes. Over 85 percent of the population had no access to clean water, even in supermarkets, and the airport is still under water, with flights estimated to be suspended till the end of the month. Nonada, a Global Voices’ partner, had to cease publishing for a few days.

People rescued from islands around Porto Alegre arrived at the city's postcard shore. Photo by Gustavo Mansur/ Palácio Piratini (CC BY-NC 2.0).

While the world, the rest of Brazil and 1.6 million people on the ground watched Madonna's free concert in Rio de Janeiro, on April 4, on social media, people shared addresses with calls for rescue and help in the metropolitan area of Porto Alegre, videos of volunteers working and alarming rumors about corpses and violence.

A touching image from Canoas, where people do a human chain to help the watercrafts used to rescue people isolated.

With the high demand for assistance, besides police and the armed forces, many volunteers joined the front amidst the emergency.

Grêmio and Internacional, the two traditional football teams and rivals from Porto Alegre, had their stadiums invaded by waters. While both clubs are trying to stop the national competitions they're playing, footballers from both teams have been helping with rescues and volunteering in donation centres and shelters.

Caíque is helping to rescue people by boat.
Rochet is helping since day one to make and to distribute packed lunches.
Diego Costa arranged jet-skis, sheltered people in his home and is using his jeep.
Thiago Maia is also helping.

Influencers outside of Rio Grande do Sul also joined massive donation campaigns and actions. A Brazilian surfer, Pedro Scooby, gathered friends and travelled by road with jet skies to support the ongoing rescues, digital influencer Felipe Neto managed to rent and arrange trucks to carry drinkable water from a water park to the cities affected, humorist Whinderson Nunes rented aircraft and organized food donations.

Still, reports of financial scams using the floods, politicians and influencers spreading fake news and attempts of robbery and attacks on houses are increasing.

People being rescued from neighborhoods in the northern zone of Porto Alegre, on May 6. Photo by Alex Rocha/PMPA. Free use.

Politics of it

Journalist Isabela Reis crossed news and posts in a thread trying to understand the timeline until the explosion of the climate disaster, calling out the state government for ”neglect and inoperability.” Many on social media complain of people ”trying to politicize the tragedy,” while others emphasize politics has everything to do with it.

To BBC Brazil, executive-secretary to the Climate Watch (Observatório do Clima), Marcio Astrini, said ”The tragedy is also a responsibility of senators and members of the congress who disassemble the environmental legislation,” and stated:

Todo ano o governo do Rio Grande do Sul fica extremamente espantado que as chuvas são intensas. O governo do Rio de Janeiro fica super surpreso quando acontece em Petrópolis. É uma surpresa em São Sebastião (SP), no norte de Minas Gerais, em Recife (PE), no sul da Bahia. Só que acontece que já faz nove anos consecutivos que as médias de temperatura do planeta são as mais quentes já registradas. Não tem mais surpresa. A gente precisa se preparar para isso.

Every year the government of Rio Grande do Sul gets extremely flabbergasted that rains are intense. The government of Rio de Janeiro gets surprised when it happens in Petrópolis. It's a surprise in São Sebastião, São Paulo, in northern Minas Gerais, in Recife (Pernambuco), in the south of Bahia. It happens that it has been nine consecutive years with temperature averages as the hottest ones ever recorded. There is no surprise anymore. We need to brace ourselves for that.

Eduardo Leite, the state governor, defended himself from critics, saying ”this is not the time to look for culprits.” People questioned the state's preparation to mitigate the consequences of the current rains and floods or the aftermath to help out victims. During his two terms, Leite altered points in the environmental legislation, made rules to install dams in environmental preservation areas more flexible, and reduced the 2024 budget destined for the Civil Defense, compared to 2023.

People being rescued in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul's capital. Photo by Giulian Serafim/PMPA. Free use.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's government (PT, Workers’ Party) installed a crisis cabinet in the state and recognized calamity status for several cities, which could make a budget increase more accessible and unlimited.

Environment Minister Marina Silva was among the ministers who traveled with Lula to Rio Grande do Sul. In an interview with CNN Brazil, she talked about the idea of a climate emergency decree for 1,942 cities in Brazil that are susceptible to extreme climate occurrences. Marina explained:

Ao decretar emergência climática, você pode ter ações que sejam continuadas, às vezes de remoção de população, de drenagem, de encosta, de uma infraestrutura que seja adequada, sistemas de alerta que sejam rápidos, combinando tecnologia com relação e em integração com a comunidade

When decreeing a climate emergency, you can have continuous actions, sometimes of removing the population, draining, building support, a proper infrastructure, alert systems that can be fast, combining technology with relation and community integration.

Porto Alegre under water. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Presidency of the Republic, used with permission.

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