Brazil dam break kills 4, leaves 11 people missing
Sunday, May 31st 2009, 7:21 am
SAO PAULO (AP) -- Raging torrents from a ruptured dam swamped a rural Brazilian city Thursday, forcing residents to scramble onto rooftops and climb high trees to escape the deadly floodwaters.
Four people were killed and at least 120 homes destroyed in a region already devastated by more than a month of floods.
Officials said floodwaters inundated Cocal, a northeastern farming city of about 25,000 in Piaui state, after a dam section gave way under the weight of a reservoir bloated by rains.
The waters swept away homes, trees and electrical energy towers and left behind muddy river beds filled with splinters and large dislodged rocks.
Images showed Brazilians sobbing outside their wrecked houses. The destruction was among the most dramatic in more than a month of northern Brazilian flooding that has killed nearly 60 and left hundreds of thousands homeless in a wide swath of northern Brazil stretching from the Amazon to normally arid coastal areas.
"It was like a tsunami with total destruction, especially in the areas close to the dam," Gov. Wellington Dias of northeastern Piaui state told reporters after touring the devastation zone.
Globo TV said the rupture sent 50 billion liters (13 billion gallons) of water pouring out of the reservoir in just one hour, causing flooding that stretched 100 kilometers (62 miles) downriver from Cocal.
Eleven people were missing, 80 suffered minor injuries and nearly 3,000 were forced from their homes.
Authorities began evacuating families about two hours after the dam failed, but civil defense authorities said Thursday night that search and rescue missions for the missing were suspended until Friday. Churches and other buildings were turned into shelters for the 2,953 people who were displaced.
The dead included girls ages 10 and 12, a 72-year-old man and a 73-year-old woman, the state government said on its Web site.
Downpours have battered northern and northeastern Brazil since April, causing floods and mudslides in a region extending from the Amazon rain forest to the Atlantic Ocean. Authorities say 59 people have been killed and more than 423,000 were displaced.
Another bout of heavy rain in recent days swelled the reservoir behind the dam, increasing pressure that opened a 165-foot (50-meter) tear and led to the rupture, the Piaui state government said in a statement.
"It was a lot of water," resident Antonio Antonino told SBT. "People were desperate, they were crying. I'm 60 years old, and I've never seen anything like this."
The floods also swept away crops and livestock, according to the government statement.
"I heard a very loud thundering noise, and when the dam broke a huge column of water shot up 50 meters (164 feet) into the air, and when it came down it swept away everything in its way," farmer Jose Maria Siqueira told Globo TV.
Piaui Civil Defense spokeswoman Vanize Lemos said at least 150 families were initially rescued, but Brazil's federal civil defense department said Thursday night said it was sending helicopters and aid to help at least 300 more families that were still isolated.
The dam overflowed two weeks ago, but residents who had been evacuated told Globo TV they had been authorized to return before the rupture occurred.
The heavy rains are blamed on an Atlantic Ocean weather system that normally moves away in April but hasn't budged this year. Meanwhile, southern Brazil has been hit by a drought that has severely affected agriculture.
The flooding in northern Brazil comes just four years after a devastating drought hit the Amazon. Experts fear that the world's largest rain forest may be experiencing severe climate swings brought on by global warming, which could threaten the people and wild animals that live in the region.