Mucum, Brazil— Flooding from a cyclone in southern Brazil washed away houses, trapped motorists in vehicles and swamped streets in several cities, killing almost 40 people and leaving 2,300 homeless, authorities were quoted as saying Wednesday. More than 60 cities have been battered since Monday night by the storm, which has been Rio Grande do Sul state’s deadliest, Gov. Eduardo Leite said.
“The fly-over we just did, shows the dimension of an absolutely out of the ordinary event,” Leite said in a video posted on the state’s social media accounts. “It wasn’t just riverside communities that were hit, but entire cities that were completely compromised.”
Videos shot by rescue teams Tuesday and published by the online news site G1 had shown some families on the top of their houses pleading for help as rivers overflowed their banks. Some areas were entirely cut off after wide avenues turned into fast-moving rivers.
Leite said Wednesday that the death toll had reached 31, and state emergency authorities said at least 2,300 people were made homeless. Major Brazilian news outlets quoted regional officials putting the death toll higher, including the most-widely circulated newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo which put the toll at 38. O Globo TV said 39 people had died amid the flooding
Leite said at least 3,000 people in his state had been forced to evacuate their homes.
In Mucum, a city of about 50,000 residents, rescuers found 15 bodies in a single house. Once the storm had passed, residents discovered a trail of destruction along the river with most buildings swept away. Images showed a sheep hanging from an electrical line – an indication of how high the water had risen.
“The water arrived very fast, it was rising two meters (about six feet) an hour,” Mucum resident Marcos Antonio Gomes said, standing on top of a pile of debris. “We have nothing left. Not even clothes.”
In an indication of how long people might be stranded, the Mucum city hall advised residents Tuesday to seek out supplies to meet their needs for the next 72 hours. Other towns called on citizens with boats to help with rescue efforts.
Gomes, a 55-year-old businessman, said it was the fourth time in 15 years that his house was damaged by floods. He said this one was the worst so far, and he expects more flooding in the future.
“There’s no way we can live here. This will come back. We have to abandon (this place),” Gomes said.
Many of the victims died from electrical shock or were trapped in vehicles, online news site G1 reported. One woman died as she was swept away during a rescue attempt.
Search and rescue teams have focused on the Taquari Valley, about 30 miles northwest of the state capital Porto Alegre, where most of the victims and damage were recorded. But those efforts expanded to the west on Wednesday morning, with helicopters sent to the Rio Pardo Valley.
More heavy rains were expected to hit the state’s center-south region, while possibly sparing worst-hit areas. Authorities maintained three flooding alerts Wednesday – for the Jacui, Cai and Taquari rivers.
The cyclone is just the latest in a series of deadly weather events in Brazil and around the globe that experts say are likely being exacerbated by climate change. Poorly regulated home building has also been a factor, with rampant construction on unstable making weather-related disasters deadlier, officials have said.
Some 9.5 million people in Brazil live in areas deemed high-risk for flooding or landslides.
Rio Grande do Sul was hit by another cyclone in June that killed 16 people and caused destruction in 40 cities, many around Porto Alegre.