updated 4/12/2006 6:15:20 PM ET 2006-04-12T22:15:20

Floods brought on by unusually heavy rains in Brazil's Amazon region have killed six people and forced tens of thousands more to flee their homes, civil defense officials said Wednesday.

Officials declared a state of emergency in 15 municipalities where at least 21,000 people have evacuated to avoid Amazon River tributaries that breached their banks, civil defense Capt. Marco Victor Lima Norap said by telephone from the Para state capital of Belem.

Norap said the worst flooding was in the city of Maraba, 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) northwest of Rio de Janeiro. The Tocantins River there has risen to 12 meters (40 feet) above its normal level, displacing more than 2,300 families.

Newspaper photos showed people using canoes to paddle their belongings past the rooftops of submerged houses.

In Porto de Moz, three children drowned in the flooding over the weekend, Norap said.

An elderly man drowned Tuesday in the town of Capitao Poco, and a 3-year-old child and a 74-year-old man were killed March 25 in flooding in the city of Almerim.

Norap said the rains started in mid-March and two other rivers, the Xingu and Tapajos, had also breached their banks.

According to the National Space Sciences Institute, rainfall was almost 25 centimeters (10 inches) above normal in the region in March.

Norap said water levels were approaching the safety limit at Brazil's second-largest hydroelectric dam, the Tucuri, and operators could be forced to open the flood gates — a move that could ease flooding upriver in Maraba while imperiling towns downstream.

Civil defense workers were providing food and medical aid in Maraba, and authorities set up six shelters around the state.

The floods hit just months after one of the Amazon's worst droughts in memory, when many rivers dried up, stranding many in a region where waterways are vital for transportation.

"We were surprised to see it go from such dry conditions to such wet conditions so abruptly," said Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher with Brazil's National Space Sciences Institute.

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