Brazil’s Floods—Why So Devastating?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
“THE worst catastrophe that ever hit Brazil.” With those plain, direct words one public official described the devastating floods of last March.
Even a descriptive, fluent storyteller cannot fully relate the gruesome picture of what happened. But a mere glance at the expressions on the faces of the survivors helps one to grasp the overwhelming effects of the disaster. These people—residents of at least a dozen stricken Brazilian states, from Rio Grande do Sul in the south to Pará in the north—saw firsthand the results of lashing rain and violent churning floodwaters.
The final official death toll around the country may surpass a thousand persons. No one really knows how many died; uncounted bodies lie mired under thick layers of mud and silt, at the bottom of rivers, or have been swept out to sea. But it is known that over 300,000 people were driven from their homes.
Agriculture, a basic, important part of the Brazilian economy, suffered heavily during the floods. Estimates from the state of Mato Grosso stagger the imagination with the possible loss of some 500,000 head of cattle, a fifth of the state’s entire herd. In Rio Grande do Norte farm damage was calculated at five million cruzeiros,* mainly due to the devastation of maize and bean crops. Large rice plantations were ruined in Maranhão State.
Tubarão Is Worst Hit
Overall, however, the greatest damage occurred in the southern state of Santa Catarina, and mostly in Tubarão, once a town of 70,000 inhabitants. In the Tubarão region some 200 persons were known to have died, 45,000 were left homeless and there was an estimated 500,000,000 cruzeiros’ worth of damage.
The town lies on the banks of the Tubarão River, which attains a width of 130 meters* in some places as it cuts through the city. The river bank is as much as two meters higher than the greater part of the city. This set the stage for the flooding. How? Well, hard rains started on Wednesday, March 20, after a long dry spell. Some days later, residents in the low-lying areas had to be moved to higher ground. By Sunday morning, March 24, the waters seemed to recede and people were able to return to their homes to begin cleanup operations. But that evening the river began spilling over its banks in a number of places.
Soon houses were being swallowed up, as rampaging waters, now 500 meters wide in places, swept through the streets with a speed never before registered, carrying trees, vehicles, furniture and mud. By midnight the river was at the highest level it had ever been known to attain, some twelve meters above normal. Bridges were impassable or were wrenched from their embankments. Meanwhile, the rains continued until 95 percent of the town was swamped. The total amount of rainfall, 2,050 millimeters (81 inches) in four days, was probably the highest ever registered in Brazil.
Many survivors of the inundation wandered about the debris dizzy and bewildered, not knowing what they were looking for, whether missing relatives, a destroyed home, or a small ration of mineral water or food from one of the endless lines at distribution centers. A frightening stench wafted from all sides. The dead were buried in mass graves for fear of an epidemic.
Said O Estado: “Little was lacking to strike Tubarão off the map.” People started to leave the town in a mass exodus, thinking that Tubarão’s development had been set back at least ten years. The question many asked was: Floods are not new to Brazil—why were these so devastating? There were several reasons.
Why So Severe?
Of course, the voluminous rainfall through much of a week produced the huge quantities of water that actually brought on the destruction. But that was only one obvious factor in a chain of deadly circumstances. Landslides channeled the waters; tiny two-meter-wide streams suddenly became torrential rivers thirty meters or more wide. Then, too, an extremely high tide and strong east winds blocked discharge of the river into the Atlantic Ocean. The water was consequently backed up inland.
But, surprising as it may seem, “natural causes” like water and wind were only part of the reason for the disaster. Man must bear a major portion of the blame for the tremendous damage in March’s floods.
Of course, in some ways man was only incidentally to blame. His bridges, for instance, were built to facilitate transportation across the river. Yet these contributed to the flooding problem. Tons of debris, swept by the water, settled on the pillars in such quantities as to obstruct the free flow of water. Eventually the tremendous pressures against some bridges ripped them loose. With what result? One sixty-meter-long bridge of tree trunks was carried by the raging water a distance of thirty kilometers (17 miles), shearing everything in its path like a huge scythe!
However, man’s thoughtlessness and carelessness also had a direct bearing on the flooding situation. How? Answers O Estado de São Paulo: “The main cause of the floods . . . was indiscriminate deforestation.” Echoing this view, Professor Piquet Carneiro, ex-president of the Brazilian Foundation for the Preservation of Nature, says that the floods were actually expected by ecologists for several years due to uncontrolled stripping of Brazil’s forests.
Trees provide a natural barrier for rain, preventing erosion and landslides. Brazil once had thick tropical forests. But now, every day one million trees are felled in the country while only about a third of that number are planted.
Ripping out huge sections of forests like this has been viewed as necessary for man’s “progress.” The great highways that now penetrate the Amazon region, for example, have funneled in thousands of pioneers, most of whom are totally unfamiliar with conservation procedures. Because of large-scale removal of trees deep ravines have been opened up in some parts of the country. Cities now cover areas where there were once forests. And plantations with crops like coffee and soybeans have sprung up.
Thus, say numerous authorities, the recent floods were no more than a boomerang. Man’s lack of foresight simply caught up with him—that is what made the floods highly devastating. And worse experiences may lie ahead. José Lutzemberger, president of the Association for the Protection of the Environment of Rio Grande do Sul, predicts: “The catastrophe that struck Tubarão is only an omen of what is to come; in coming years still bigger calamities will happen. We are probably already experiencing the first climatical changes caused by the destruction fostered by man in the whole earth.”
For now, however, survivors are glad that the recent flooding was no more severe than it proved to be. Actually, greater tragedy was averted at Tubarão by the heroism and cooperation of many persons.
It Could Have Been Worse
As the waters started to rise on Sunday evening, March 24, a desperate and eerie choir of automobile horns and the steam signal of the railroad tried to wake up the sleepy city. This procedure is credited with saving many lives. As buses were sent to higher ground, the drivers picked up fleeing refugees, preserving, it is estimated, 400 persons. The buses then served as shelter for the stranded people for almost a week. Six helicopters rescued about 6,000 victims from housetops. Some military and municipal personnel labored twenty-four hours without rest to truck out the worst-hit families.
Various Brazilian institutions provided food and clothing for 20,000 persons for weeks after the disaster. Every day some forty tons of food arrived. The International Red Cross sent 500 tents from Frankfurt, Germany.
All thirty-eight members of the Tubarão congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses survived the flood, though many suffered extensive material losses. A circuit overseer says that the Witnesses, “even in the face of death, did not lose courage.” The congregation’s presiding overseer, Valdomiro Cardoso, recalls his attempts to assist the suffering: “After taking my family to a nearby building, I went back to help other people get out of danger. The water kept rising rapidly and the current was very strong. Worldly people around us were stunned. We, however, through prayer, put our trust in Jehovah, and tried to comfort them with the hope of the approaching Kingdom blessings.”
Witnesses from nearby Florianópolis were among the first to get into devastated Tubarão with food, clothing, water and medicine. An aid program was quickly set up in which Witnesses and other persons in the area received help from various congregations as well as from the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Sao Paulo.
The population of Santa Catarina has not lost hope. Under the slogan “the South Is Alive,” the people have been stimulated to rebuild. Trucks and machines were scheduled to be sent in to clear the city of ruins, rubble and the thick layer of stinking mud. Hundreds of millions of cruzeiros have been set aside by the state and federal governments for restoration of housing, highways, agriculture and industry.
Residents of the stricken areas look forward to the rebuilding. But Brazil’s floods have impressed them with this fact: Man, not just natural forces, was largely responsible for the recent catastrophe that struck their nation. They know that man obviously has much to learn about being at peace with his environment.
A cruzeiro is worth about seventeen U.S. cents.
A meter is about three feet, three inches.
[Map on page 24]
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