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Page last updated at 09:02 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 10:02 UK

Tough times for flood-hit Brazilians

The clean-up begins in north-eastern Brazil after devastating floods that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 39 people. The BBC's Gary Duffy finds out how the recovery effort is going.

Army delivers aid
The army is delivering aid but locals fear it is not enough

As our boat approached the small Brazilian town of Trizidela do Vale - in the northern state of Maranhao - it was clear the reports that it was 90% under water were no exaggeration.

In some places the only indication that this had once been home to a poor but vibrant community were the red tiles of the roofs sticking up just above the water line, along with the occasional satellite dish.

Although there are fears that the water has been contaminated with sewage, rotting animals and even bodies washed from a nearby cemetery, people were still using it to swim and to wash on a hot and humid day.

The corner of a street had been turned into an improvised harbour and was a hive of activity as boats pulled up and left - one had been carrying a woman just about to give birth who seemed remarkably calm in the circumstances.

We travelled with the police and soldiers arriving at Trizidela do Vale who were bringing with them "cestas basicas", basic food parcels containing items such as rice and cooking oil.

We have to provide food for nearly 4,000 families, and from the 500 food parcels we have received today we will have to choose the neediest ones
Fr Ribamar Cardoso

The scale of the problems here are enormous. Of a population of 18,000, some 15,000 have had to leave their homes.

Some of those who stayed until the last moment, hoping the waters would recede, lost their property as well.

'Precarious situation'

A short distance up the hill in the local Catholic Church of Santo Antonio De Padua they were still managing to celebrate a traditional feast day - despite the mayhem.

The local priest, Fr Ribamar Cardoso, told me the community had been going through a difficult time.

He said 500 basic food parcels were being delivered that day and it simply was not enough to meet the demand.

"We have to provide food for nearly 4,000 families, and from the 500 food parcels we have received today we will have to choose the neediest ones - the biggest families.

I just got out with the very basics, I lost my oven, mattress, bed - it is all there floating inside my house
Maria Bezerra

"Because the last time we had a delivery was 5 May and today is the 13th, and there are families here with nine or 10 people."

We then travelled 2.5km (1.5km) up river to the small community where 62 families had been completely cut off by the flooding.

Once again we were brought to the area by soldiers and police officers bringing food supplies.

After our boat pulled up, people quickly lined up in the flooded street clutching the piece of paper that entitled them to one food parcel.

Francilene Perreira said the last month had been very difficult for everyone.

"Our situation is very precarious - the water is taking over everything," she said.

"Here we live off the land making charcoal and collecting coconuts and, as you can see, there is no way we can continue doing that because it is all flooded - the coconuts are all under water."

As we made our way back, the clouds were gathering ominously and the rain was starting to fall again - a sign for one beleaguered community that the worst had not yet passed.

In the nearby town of Bacabal, many resident have also had to face the loss of their homes and their possessions.

Maria Bezerra and her family were staying in temporary accommodation that had been adapted from a former showground. The conditions were far from ideal with little access to proper sanitation and plastic sheets dividing off the living areas.

There were nine people sharing the same area with Maria, including a woman breastfeeding a child born only four days earlier.

Walking through flood waters in Trizidela do Vale
Trizidelo do Vale is still mainly under water

"For me it has not been good at all, because I lost everything as I was sick and weak," she said.

"I just got out with the very basics. I lost my oven, mattress, bed - it is all there floating inside my house."

"We were at home, and we were waiting and holding on and the river kept rising up," Bernarda Silva said.

"And when it got up to the doorstep it started coming into the house. The only option we had was to leave and we didn't have time to take everything out. Then one of the walls fell down and as if that wasn't enough then the whole house fell.

"It is a very difficult situation."

Troubling issues

The severe flooding in the north, some of it in normally arid states, and a drought in the south of the country, have prompted a renewed discussion about the possible impact of climate change in the country.

Floodwaters in the town of Araioses, Maranhao state. Photo: 12 May 2009

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has pointed to this as a possible factor to explain the recent weather, a view shared by Carlos Nobre, a senior scientist at Brazil's national space research agency, INPE.

"There were floods and droughts before climate change," he told the BBC News website.

"Probably this kind of phenomenon would occur every 50 years - now it is happening more frequently.

"For example, compare the recent floods in the Amazon river - the last one happened 107 years ago, but last year we had one flood that was over the average, and this year it hit record levels."

The recent flooding has also raised another troubling issue that some Brazilians have been discussing.

When floods hit the more prosperous south of Brazil late last year, it seemed the whole country was rallying to help.

Now that some of the poorest states in the north of the country are the victim, they say, it appears there is less of that public spirit around, although the government is promising a significant injection of cash to help rebuild damaged homes.

In the meantime, for the many victims of the floods it seems the best hope is that the waters start to recede, and they can begin to rebuild their lives and try at least to restore some kind of normality.



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SEE ALSO
Brazil steps up flood aid efforts
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In pictures: Floods engulf north Brazil
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Thousands flee floods in Brazil
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Country profile: Brazil
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