Brazilians braved lethal snakes and alligators to paddle swollen rivers in search of food and shelter as the worst rainfall and flooding in two decades hit the vast northern Amazon region.
Authorities reported Thursday at least 33 deaths from drowning and mudslides and said 214,000 people have fled swamped, ramshackle homes, some huddling with livestock in shelters and others complaining of slow government response.
Rain continued to fall across a huge swath stretching from the jungle to the northeastern Atlantic coast, and meteorologists predicted the bad weather could last for weeks.
In the tiny hamlet of Sao Miguel de Rosario, adults waded into waist-deep, muddy water as the nearby Tapecuru River flooded the main road — though they kept children in boats to protect them from rattlesnakes and anacondas seen swimming nearby.
"Up until now no one has been bitten here. The main thing you tell the kids is to stay out of the water," said Palmeiro da Costa as he ferried people around the small village in his canoe.
Alligators swam through populated areas of the city of Santarem along the banks of the Amazon River, said civil defense official Walkiria Coelho. Scorpions also congregated on the same high ground as the people escaping the rising water. No injuries were reported.
But authorities worried about a worsening health toll because many areas have been isolated for days with little food or drinking water.
Obstacles to aid delivery
Rivers were still rising as much as a foot a day in the hardest hit northern state of Maranhao. The surging torrents wrecked bridges and made it too dangerous for relief workers to take boats onto some waterways.
While emergency medicine and food were being flown into airports, many affected towns lacked workers to organize aid distribution once shipments arrived, said Maj. Wellington Soares Araujo, head of logistics for Maranhao civil defense.
Globo TV said planes were unable to land in remote areas of Piaui state to deliver aid and roads were impassable, leaving boats as the only option because helicopters were not available.
"It's really hard for some areas that don't have any civil defense infrastructure," Araujo said.
The army evacuated thousands of people from two towns where tiled roofs barely poked above swirling waters. Residents packed into gyms, schools and tents erected on higher ground.
"There's no houses, there isn't enough food, they even have a shortage of tents," Araujo said.
Television images showed hundreds of people with pets and chickens crowded inside an abandoned hospital-turned-shelter with only one working bathroom. Isolated cases of looting were reported in communities cut off by high water.
In three Amazon states, at least 3,000 Indians were chased to higher ground or into the jungle by floodwaters, which also destroyed their crops of manioc, bananas and potatoes, said Sebastiao Haji Manchiner, executive secretary of the Brazilian Amazon Indigenous Organization.
Two months of heavy rain
Unusually heavy rains have been falling for two months on an area three times the size of Alaska, stretching across parts of 10 of Brazil's 26 states, from the normally wet jungle to coastal states known for lengthy droughts. Meteorologists blamed an Atlantic Ocean weather system that typically moves on by April but hasn't budged this year.
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.
Ocilene Ferreira da Silva barely had time to grab her two young daughters and put them in a canoe after a small dam collapsed.
"My neighbor came in screaming that the water was rising really fast, and then all of a sudden the water came rushing into my house," said Silva, 23. "The water took everything, it even swept away all the dogs, cats and even parrots. It took everything."
Rising waters created a lake along a key railroad that carries iron ore from a jungle mine to an Atlantic port for export to steel mills. The railway owner, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA, said it was working on repairs and would reopen the line as soon as possible.
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."