‘The future is dark’: Brazilian businesses shattered by floods

In the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, workers struggle to recover from torrential downpours that left cities underwater.

An aerial view of the Ilhas neighbourhood of Porto Alegre, Brazil, as the river rises to local streets.
The Ilhas neighbourhood of Porto Alegre, Brazil, was inundated by floods in May [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]
The Ilhas neighbourhood of Porto Alegre, Brazil, was inundated by floods in May [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

Porto Alegre, Brazil – Carla Rambo moves through a room of clutter, clearing the shelves inside her office supplies store in the historic centre of Porto Alegre, the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

She's middle-aged. She wears jeans, big white glasses and a puffy grey jacket, zipped up against the cold. She looks exhausted.

When the floodwaters rose here in early May, they engulfed her shop. The water stayed for weeks. It was a lingering reminder of the historic downpours that left at least 175 people dead — and a continuing impediment for those who survived.

Now, like many employees and business owners, Rambo and her husband are struggling to cope with the aftermath.

She grabs a package off the shelves, rips it apart, dumps the markers inside into a crate and tosses the moist and mouldy cardboard into a growing pile of garbage on the sidewalk in front of her store. Beside the crate are buckets of sudsy water. Rambo and her husband are retrieving and disinfecting what they can — paint, glue, markers — and dumping the rest.

It’s a tedious job, particularly without electricity in their part of Porto Alegre, which would have enabled them to use a pressure washer to clean out their shop. The power was cut to avoid further dangers during the floods.

“Look at this,” she says as she slides off part of the covering for a shelf that is stained a brown mud colour from the floods. “What are you supposed to do with this? Trash.”

She motions with her right hand to show how high the water rose in her store — just underneath her arm.

“I've had this store for 26 years,” she says. “I've lived here for almost 40 years. Nothing like this has ever happened here. Sure, the street might flood a little when it rained, but we never had a flood that inundated homes and stores.”

"It’s a disaster.”

Rambo is wearing latex gloves because the floodwaters were not only dirty, but dangerous. Mud and mildew cover much of her store, bringing the threat of leptospirosis — a bacterial disease carried in animal urine, which is transferred by floodwaters. Eight people have already died from the disease across the state. There are almost 2,000 suspected cases.

What impact will the flood ultimately have on her business? She takes a moment to respond, arms hanging by her side.

“A lot of struggle going forward,” she says.

No sleep for a week

A man with a trash bag slung over his shoulder looks at a neighborhood devastated by floods, the ground still muddy and loose boards and detritus strewn through the streets.
A resident in Sao Leopoldo examines the devastation to one of the area's neighbourhoods [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]
A resident in Sao Leopoldo examines the devastation to one of the area's neighbourhoods [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

Rambo’s store is one of around 45,000 businesses in the state capital that have been impacted by these devastating floods. Porto Alegre’s Chamber of Store Managers estimates that the total cost to commerce in the city was 487.7 million reals ($91m) between April 29 through May 26.

The floods began in late April after torrential rains inundated the city and surrounding mountains. The waters poured through towns and funnelled into the Guaiba River, which runs alongside Porto Alegre, causing the water to rise some 5.33 metres (17.48 feet) higher than normal — levels never before seen.

The previous high was 4.75 metres (15.6 feet) above normal, set during the historic floods of May 1941.

The owners of businesses near the Porto Alegre waterfront say they watched the floodwaters rise each day, until the river was at their doorsteps and flowing into their stores and restaurants.

“We were here almost a week without sleeping,” said Eni Verdejo Monteiro, the middle-aged owner of Lanches da Tia, a sandwich shop up the street from Rambo’s office supplies store.

When the waters poured into Monteiro's premises and the electricity was cut, she and her husband found there was no way to close the large metal gate in the front of their restaurant. Fearing looters, they decided to stay put.

They were right to be vigilant. Dozens of people were arrested and jailed in the first weeks of the flooding after trying to break into and rob unprotected homes and businesses. Just in the town of Eldorado do Sul, $6m in equipment and products were stolen during break-ins at 17 businesses.

“Our son was worried,” Monteiro recalled. “We didn’t have a cell phone, because it ran out of batteries. We didn’t have any contact with anyone. No electricity. And the only thing you heard were the helicopters and the people screaming for help. There is no way to describe it.”

Like Rambo and her husband, Monteiro and her family are now trying to pick up the pieces.

“We have to talk about things a lot,” said Monteiro’s husband, Joao Batista Coelho. “We’re going to take a hit in the next two or three months. It’s all going to be a loss. We have no income. We lost our refrigerator, stove, cabinets, counter.”

And they have to pay rent. “The future is dark,” said Coelho, holding back tears. “But we can’t just give up.”

João Batista Coelho, in a blue sports jacket, stands outside his store, while his wife looks on, a hand over her mouth, as if overcome with emotion.
João Batista Coelho, right, and his wife Eni Verdejo Monteiro are struggling to survive without the income from their sandwich shop [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

State officials have said the flooding tragedy was the worst climate disaster in the history of southern Brazil. Experts believe reconstruction costs across Brazil's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul could amount to some $4bn. More than 90 percent of the municipalities in the state were impacted — 2.3 million people.

The scale of the affected area is huge. Rio Grande do Sul is larger than the size of the United Kingdom. Six hundred thousand people were pushed from their homes. Fifty thousand are still in shelters. Rubble lines streets in towns across the state, as residents clear out their once cherished possessions and wait for them to be picked up by city clean-up crews.

Some areas have been hit worse than others. Entire sections of towns in the mountains north and west of Porto Alegre were obliterated by inundated rivers, which carried away homes, stores and businesses.

The town of Arroio do Meio was one of the hardest hit. Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited it last week and walked with residents through city blocks that no longer existed — wiped clean by the floodwaters.

In the state capital, the devastation is best summed up as a tale of two cities. Low-lying areas close to the river, including City Hall and the historic city centre, were inundated like never before. Meanwhile, some neighbourhoods higher up on the hillsides seemed to carry on as usual, except that electricity and water were cut for several days as pumps and the electrical grid went offline.

Now, the city is re-emerging, but it's a slow process. The Porto Alegre International Airport is expected to be closed until the end of the year. As of last week, the neighbourhoods of Humaita, Sarandi and Ilhas were still underwater.

President Lula has promised $10bn for the state’s recovery. The New Development Bank — previously known as the BRICS Development Bank, established by the BRICS states and led by former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — has promised another $1bn.

Nevertheless, it will take time for reconstruction to begin. Continued rains, strong winds and sputtering infrastructure have all slowed recovery efforts.

Surviving on donations

A man wades through muddy flood water, walking down the street of the Ilhas neighbourhood of Porto Alegre.
A man wades through the muddy waters flooding the Ilhas neighbourhood of Porto Alegre [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]
A man wades through the muddy waters flooding the Ilhas neighbourhood of Porto Alegre [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

Small-scale fishing is the top source of revenue for the Ihlas, a neighbourhood in the north of the state capital. Its name — meaning “islands” — refers to its topography: The Ilhas is composed of a chain of islands in the Guaiba River, just across the water from downtown Porto Alegre.

But it’s been one of the hardest hit areas of the city. Many homes are still underwater. Electricity and running water have been cut across the region.

“The impact is huge,” said Gelarde Luiz, as he reflected on the economic costs for his island community.

A fisherman in his early 40s, Luiz stood alongside his wife and son on the main dock leading to downtown, his grey hair sticking out from a worn blue hat. The family had arrived there from their home in Ilha da Pintada, or Painted Island, in search of supplies their community no longer had.

They had weathered the flood in a makeshift camp perched on the flat roof of a neighbour's home, the only place the waters did not reach.

Gelarde Luiz, in a blue ball cap and a black pullover sweater.
Gelarde Luiz says the equipment he uses for his fishing business has been lost or destroyed [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

But now that the floodwaters were subsiding, Luiz worried about his ability to make money moving forward. His fishing business was effectively underwater.

"We had a bunch of frozen fish, and it all went bad. Without refrigeration, we just had to toss them,” he said. "Our equipment is broken. I have two boats that are underwater, and I have no idea when I’ll be able to bring them back up."

Luiz added that his biggest problem now is the lack of electricity. The power has been out since early May, and there’s still no information about when it might be turned back on.

“We have to fish and save it in the freezer. If you don’t have electricity, you can’t work, and we have to survive off of donations,” he said.

Even if he could fish, there is no demand for seafood from the Guaiba River, which has been mixed with contaminated floodwaters.

As the flood levels drop, people on the islands are starting to clean and gut their homes, removing everything from the inside that was impacted by the rising waters.

'Ten years to rebuild'

Moody water fills the halls and stalls of Porto Alegre's public market.
Flooding has brought Porto Alegre's once-bustling public market to a standstill [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]
Flooding has brought Porto Alegre's once-bustling public market to a standstill [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

Porto Alegre’s 154-year-old public market is also in disarray. Under normal circumstances, the halls are packed with 50,000 people a day, and the bustle of shopping echoes across the space.

But the market was inundated with the rest of Porto Alegre's historic downtown. A month later — in late May — the waters around the building had finally dried, but inside, the floor was still covered in mud. The market looked like the remains of a war zone, and everything smelled of rot and decay.

"Everything is lost on the ground floor,” Rafael Sartori, the head of the association representing the 110 stores at the market, told a local news outlet in May. "We have no idea what our situation will be like when we reopen at the end of June.”

Reconstruction will take time. The governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Eduardo Leite, has called for a Marshall Plan for the region — a reference to the post-war initiative to rebuild Europe after the devastation of World War II.

Indeed, Venilton Tadini, the executive president of the Brazilian Association of Infrastructure and Basic Industries, said recovering from the damage will take years.

“That’s the way it is, unfortunately,” he told a Brazilian financial journal, Inteligencia Financeira, in mid-May. “You can’t change things overnight. The disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans took 10 years to rebuild.”

Ary Vanazzi, the mayor of São Leopoldo, sits at a table in an orange and blue windbreaker jacket.
Ary Vanazzi, the mayor of Sao Leopoldo, says the ever-present devastation in his city is having a toll on residents' mental health [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

“I think it’s going to take the state a decade to get back on its feet,” Ary Vanazzi, the mayor of Sao Leopoldo, a city near Porto Alegre, told Al Jazeera. "It’s going to need a lot of federal investment, a lot of planning, a lot of will, creativity and effort.”

Vanazzi was personally impacted by the floods. He, like tens of thousands in Sao Leopoldo, lost everything. Half of the city’s residents had to be evacuated.

Vanazzi said that, for now, he’s focusing on cleaning up the rubble.

“It's going to take me about 90 days just to collect what people throw away,” he explained. "I've hired 250 trucks, 80 backhoes, 500 men working to get the things off the streets — to get it out of the public’s eyes."

“That image wears on you day after day. So we urgently need to get this out of the way, so at least people can take their first steps forward. Otherwise, the tragedy will be greater."

Poorest are hardest hit

A pair of Wellington rain-boots are seen standing amid the rubble of a flooded street
The federal government has promised to provide relief for flood-stricken areas in southern Brazil [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]
The federal government has promised to provide relief for flood-stricken areas in southern Brazil [Michael Fox/Al Jazeera]

According to a study by the National Science and Technology Institute and the Observatory of Metropolises, the regions hardest hit by the floods are also the poorest.

“It is clearly delineated,” said researcher Andre Augustin. “You can see that the areas with the most flooding were the regions with the poorest communities."

The floods are likely to make life worse for those communities. The real estate value of homes and properties in flood-stricken areas has also started to tank.

“There will be a clear increase in poverty, due to the fact that families will need to use their savings for unexpected expenses,” economist Wallace Borges told the Brazilian news site Noticia Preta in early May. "This will mean that the little that families have in their checking accounts or saved at home will be used up right now, as families spend everything they have.”

The federal government is trying to help. More than 160,000 families impacted by the floods in Rio Grande do Sul have already received emergency financial support, called "reconstruction aid”, worth 5,100 reals per family — just under $1,000.

In an effort to stave off mass firings by businesses battling to get back on their feet, President Lula announced on June 6 that the federal government would also pay two monthly minimum-wage salaries to all formally employed workers impacted by the floods — more than 430,000 people.

Lula has also promised to build homes for every family that lost one. But that will also take time.

“We have to continue, because it’s our means of income,” said Rambo. "But we'll have to start over.”

Source: Al Jazeera