The Heat Is Online

January Floods Swamp Brazil

Twelve dead, thousands stranded in Brazil floods

BRAZIL: January 4, 2000 Reuters News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO - Heavy downpours played havoc in Brazil yesterday causing flooding, delayed flights and snarled traffic as millions struggled to return home from New Year's Eve celebrations, officials said.

The official death toll as a result of the weather rose to 12 in the southeastern state of Rio, while thousands of others were flooded out of their homes in neighbouring Minas Gerais.

Dramatic television footage in the state of Minas Gerais showed uprooted trees blocking major roads and residents wading in thigh-deep waters of inundated village streets carrying pets and precious possessions.

Rescue workers paddling house to house said the water was 20 feet (six metres) deep in some areas and rising at the rate of 10 inches (26 cm) per hour. State officials there said floods had pushed at least 10,000 people from their homes and 14 municipalities had declared a state of emergency.

In Rio another 500 people became homeless and several were killed when the rickety structures in the city's hillside shantytowns collapsed as the mud shifted underneath. Another nine people died in various accidents caused by flooding in the centre of the state.

In the city of Tres Rios, named for its three rivers, one man died when his car plunged into one of the raging waterways, another man was killed trying to save his dog from drowning in another river and an elderly woman died as she tried to cross a flooded road and was swept away by the strong currents.

Meanwhile the swollen Engenheiro Passos river overflowed and flooded the main highway linking Brazil's two major cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Although the rain eventually tapered off along the Dutra highway, traffic was almost completely blocked at the city of Resende two hours south of Rio and backed up 20 miles (30 km) for most of the day. Traffic snarls stretched nine miles (14 km) in the opposite direction.

Stranded travelers returning from Rio's huge millennium beach party found themselves trapped in steamy cars and buses for upward of 12 hours. Several fell victim to cycle-riding thieves who sped by snatching wristwatches and other items within easy reach of open windows.

All buses from Rio to Sao Paulo were cancelled and even those en route turned around and headed back. Some passengers opted to get out and start walking the 261 miles (421 kms).

"I've been sitting on a bus that's been completely stopped for 12 hours. At least I'm moving now," one man told Globo Television as he walked along the highway holding only an umbrella and a lightweight plastic bag.

Air travelers fared only slightly better with long waits for shuttle flights between Rio and Sao Paulo and some delays of other flights to Minas Gerais capital Belo Horizonte and Brasilia because of inclement weather, airport officials said. One traveller trying to get back to Sao Paulo on Monday afternoon said Rio's domestic airport was swamped with tired and cranky people who were standing in two-hour lines that snaked out of the building for increasingly rare tickets.

"It's chaos, but it's a controlled chaos. They are saying they will add more flights to calm people down," she said. On one bright note, the three days of rains did refill reservoirs used to power Brazil's hydroelectric plants, the main source of electricity for the energy-hungry country.