Brazil rescue efforts continue as Lula visits areas hit by floods

President Lula says that Sao Paulo region can ‘count on the federal government’ after flooding killed at least 40.

Rescue workers search for survivors in amid wreckage caused by the floods
Rescue workers search for survivors in Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, on Monday, after heavy rain triggered flooding and landslides [Andre Penner/AP Photo]

Hundreds of emergency rescue workers continue to search for survivors amid the devastation of flooding and landslides that have killed at least 40 people and displaced several hundred in Brazil.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Monday visited impacted areas in the southeastern state of Sao Paulo, where dozens of people remain missing. The city of ​​Sao Sebastiao, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Sao Paulo, appears to have been hit the hardest, accounting for 39 of the 40 victims.

“We heard this terrifying noise of trees falling and glass breaking. The water swept right through the bathroom window — it just exploded,” Vanesa Cristina Caetano, a 41-year-old domestic worker who escaped with her husband and two children in San Sebastiao, told the news agency AFP. “We heard the water rushing down, along with lots of trees and rocks. It nearly swept the house away. We ended up with water up to my shoulders.”

Lula flew over Sao Sebastiao in a helicopter to survey the damage on Monday prior to a meeting with local officials, who said that some areas were cut off after landslides blocked the roads.

A road is blocked by a mudslide triggered by heavy rains
The Rio-Santos highway is blocked by a mudslide triggered by heavy rains, near the Barra do Sahi beach in the coastal city of Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, on February 20 [Andre Penner/AP Photo]

“United we will be much stronger and Sao Sebastiao will recover much faster,” Lula said in a Twitter post on Monday. “Count on the federal government.”

The president promised to help rebuild the town of some 91,000 people by constructing new houses in safer places, while also saying the government must work to restore key infrastructure facilities such as roads also hit by landslides.

“Sometimes nature takes us by surprise, but sometimes we also tempt nature,” Lula said in a speech after meeting with Sao Paulo Governor Tarcisio de Freitas and Sao Sebastiao Mayor Felipe Augusto to coordinate their response to the tragedy.

The flooding was triggered by a large downpour of rain over the weekend, and has prompted many cities in the region to cancel Carnival festivities.

In a social media post on Sunday night, Augusto described a “chaotic situation” after 600mm (24 inches) of rain washed over the town in less than 24 hours.

Augusto said that 50 homes in the city had collapsed from flooding and landslides, and photos of the area show homes inundated with debris. Authorities said that those rescued from the torrent of mud include a two-year-old boy and a woman giving birth.

Seeking shelter on higher ground, some residents used boats to ferry goods and people to elevated areas.

While Sao Sebastiao was at the centre of the disaster, surrounding towns such as Ilhabela and Caraguatatuba have also been impacted, and a seven-year-old girl was killed in the neighbouring town of Ubatuba, the Sao Paolo state government said.

The side of a hill shows scars from flooding with a town below
A hillside is exposed after flooding triggered deadly landslides near Sao Sebastiao in Brazil on Monday, February 20 [Andre Penner/AP Photo]

De Freitas declared an 18-day state of calamity for six towns in impacted areas, and a press release from the state government said that nearly 800 people had lost their homes.

In recent years, flooding and landslides have been a persistent and deadly phenomenon in Brazil. In February 2022, more than 200 people were killed as the city of Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro was inundated with flooding and landslides, and torrential rains resulted in flooding that killed 100 in the state or Pernambuco in May 2022.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies