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Tens of thousands are displaced in Brazil after weeks of flooding in Bahia state

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Brazil, weeks of heavy rains have caused severe flooding in the northeastern state of Bahia. Dozens of people have died. Tens of thousands are homeless or displaced. The governor is calling it the worst disaster in the state's history. Reuters correspondent Gram Slattery joins us now from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Welcome.

GRAM SLATTERY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: There are some harrowing stories coming out of Bahia - people escaping through second-story windows, dinghies being used to evacuate people. Where does the rescue efforts stand right now?

SLATTERY: Well, at the moment, state authorities and federal authorities are still working around the clock to attempt to rescue as many people as possible. As you mentioned, about 21 people have died so far. In fact, over 70,000 are currently homeless. And the rain is still continuing. So we're seeing a number of municipalities entering into states of emergency or alert and then exiting them and so on and so forth.

SHAPIRO: With tens of thousands of people homeless, how is the government providing emergency shelter right now?

SLATTERY: Well, it's a good question. The federal government has already sent about 200 million reais in relief funds, which is about 35, $36 million. But the governor, Rui Costa, said that's not enough. At the very least, the state will need twice that amount simply to build about 5,000 new homes, which he's estimated will be needed for the families that have been displaced. The federal government said that...

SHAPIRO: But building homes is a longer-term project. What about the immediate need for shelter right now?

SLATTERY: Well, so right now, obviously, the scenes are very chaotic. There's a number of families that are, in fact, homeless. You know, state authorities are working to provide shelter in the short term. But obviously, the scenes are scenes of desperation. And the fact is there aren't immediate short-term solutions for, you know, this problem.

SHAPIRO: Can you describe what those scenes look like?

SLATTERY: Sure. We've seen thousands of people rescued from homes that are now completely flattened, completely destroyed. And we've seen - you know, this is a very recent phenomenon. We're talking about, really, the last few days that the floods have intensified. And to the extent possible, we've seen a lot of residents that are basically searching through the debris of what was their home, trying to recover what they can, really, as a first step.

SHAPIRO: I understand that two dams in the state broke over Christmas weekend. How has that complicated the situation?

SLATTERY: Effectively, it's been raining for some time in Bahia. The rains have been quite intense for a few weeks. But as you mentioned, late on Christmas Eve, two dams collapsed, which caused two rivers, which were already rivers with a lot of flow, to rise several meters. And they took out large neighborhoods and several towns in Bahia. And that was really where we were seeing the most dramatic scenes at the beginning.

SHAPIRO: And so is this an infrastructure failure on top of a natural disaster? I mean, what role does infrastructure play here?

SLATTERY: Absolutely. Speaking narrowly of dams, this is a country that relies a lot on hydroelectricity. It has a lot of mining projects. A lot of the country is quite mountainous, and so there are a lot of dams. And there have been a number of tragedies in recent years where dams have broken and killed people. And so authorities have pledged over and over again to improve the safety of dams in Brazil. Obviously, that's a work still in progress.

SHAPIRO: We know that climate change has led to increased flooding in many parts of the world, from China to Germany to the U.S. How unusual is this level of precipitation in this part of Brazil, in the northeast?

SLATTERY: It's extremely unusual. Effectively, December has been an extremely rainy month in Bahia. It's the rainiest month in many parts of the state in over three decades. And one thing that's quite striking is that it's actually come on the heels of an extreme dry spell. Earlier in the year, concerns were about low water levels and hydroelectric dams not having sufficient water to provide electricity to communities and agriculture failing. And then over the last few months and particularly the last several days, we've seen historic rains. And that's caused the scenes that we're seeing unfold today.

SHAPIRO: That's Gram Slattery, correspondent for Reuters in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you for speaking with us.

SLATTERY: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.