Image: Flooded street
Manui Dias  /  AP
This street in Salvador, Brazil, is among those areas swamped by flooding this week.
updated 5/6/2009 3:12:56 PM ET 2009-05-06T19:12:56

Army soldiers and civil defense authorities used boats, trucks and helicopters Wednesday to tote food and water to scores of cities and towns isolated by floods that have killed at least 32 people and left nearly 200,000 homeless.

But in an ominous sign that worried officials, rain continued to fall across a vast region stretching from the Amazon jungle to the northeastern Atlantic coast and meteorologists predicted the bad weather could last for weeks.

Isolated looting was reported in communities cut off by flooding, and some areas were experiencing their heaviest rainfall in two decades, officials said.

In three Amazon states, at least 3,000 Indians near rivers that overflowed fled to higher ground or into the jungle after seeing their crops of manioc, bananas and potatoes destroyed, said Sebastiao Haji Manchiner, executive secretary of the Brazilian Amazon Indigenous Organization.

In the hardest-hit state of Maranhao, some rivers were rising as much as 1 foot per day, destroying bridges and making it too dangerous for relief workers to navigate waterways.

"There are some places where the water is so high that not even a boat can get to people," said Brazilian army Lt. Ivar Araujo, in charge of 200 soldiers trying to help citizens in two towns where homes were submerged to their roof tiles and hundreds packed into shelters in gyms and schools on higher ground.

Area three times Alaska's size
The unusually heavy rains that have slammed the region for two months are now affecting 10 of Brazil's 26 states in a zone three times the size of Alaska. It stretches from the normally wet jungle to coastal states known for lengthy droughts, though not all parts of the states have been affected.

Most victims drowned or were killed when mudslides swept apart ramshackle homes, but authorities feared the situation could get much worse because some areas have been isolated for days without shipments of food or water.

Civil defense workers used army helicopters to airlift supplies to some places. Trucks laden with emergency shipments of food and water were forced to stop at highway washouts so aid workers could transfer the goods onto boats for delivery, said Abner Ferreira, a spokesman for Maranhao's civil defense department.

Ferreira said there were reports of scattered looting, and some people refused to leave homes submerged in 5 feet of water to prevent their belongings from being stolen.

In the Para state city of Altamira, more rain fell in three hours than the jungle city of 90,000 normally gets in two months, Mayor Odileida Sampaio told the state-run Agencia Brasil news agency.

About 5,000 buildings were damaged, and nearly a third of the city's residents were forced from their homes — many of whom live in rickety shacks erected atop stilts.

"It's a complicated situation that is affecting mainly the poor and the business owners," Sampaio said. "Normally the Xingu River rises slowly, but this year it happened really quickly."

Some victims said floodwaters rose so fast in recent days that they barely managed to survive.
"I didn't have time to get my things from the house, I lost everything," Francisca Antonia Gomes told Globo's G1 Web site in the state of Piaui, where 41,000 were displaced after the state had twice the normal amount of rain in April.

Floods created a crater and a lake along the path of a key iron ore export railway that takes raw ingredient for steel from a jungle mine to an Atlantic port.

The railway owner, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA, said in a statement it was working on repairs and would reopen the railway as soon as possible.

While the rainfall and floods are the worst that some parts of the region have seen since 1989, floods and mudslides last year in the southern state of Santa Catarina killed more than 100 people and displaced 80,000.

Weather system stalled
Meteorologists blamed the rains on an Atlantic weather system that typically moves on by April but has remained longer this year.

The system "is staying farther south from where it usually stays this time of the year," said Luiz Kondraski of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research. "If it were more to the north right now, the rains wouldn't be so intense."

One thing the rains won't hurt is Brazil's environment, said Paulo Adario, coordinator of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign.

"The rainforest and the animals that live in it have coexisted with floods for centuries," he said. "Floods are part of the annual cycle in the region."

Nor is it expected to have any impact on long-standing land and natural resource disputes between Indians and settlers, said Luiz Claudio Teixeira, a missionary and member of the Roman Catholic Church-backed Indian Missionary Council.

"Conflict between settlers and Indians is permanent in the region and will remain so with or without floods," he said. "They may lead to a temporary truce which will end as soon as the waters recede."

Meanwhile southern Brazil is in the midst of a severe drought blamed on the La Nina weather phenomenon, which lowers water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

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