Floods and mudslides from months of heavy rains in northern Brazil have driven more than 186,000 from their homes, killed at least 19 people and cut off shipments from a huge Amazon iron mine, officials said on Tuesday.
Television footage showed the rooftops of houses poking out of inundated towns and people using boats to move around in their cities. Mudslides swamped homes and forced residents to move in with relatives and pack into emergency shelters.
Globo TV's G1 Web site reported on Tuesday night that three more people died in a mudslide in Bahia state, south of the main zone of devastation, but authorities did not immediately confirm the deaths. At least seven states, most in the Amazon region, have been affected by the rains, which have battered the region for several months, regional civil defense departments said. Worst-hit is the state of Maranhao along the Atlantic coast and south of the mouth of the Amazon River.
Maranhao civil defense official Abner Ferreira said six major highways have been swamped, cutting off thousands of people and leaving lines of stranded cargo trucks.
The rains also prompted the temporary closure of a railway that takes iron ore from the sprawling Carajas mine in the neighboring jungle state of Para, according to a statement from miner Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA.
Iron ore, the main ingredient in steel, is shipped overseas from Sao Luis, the state capital of Maranhao. The railway also transports 1,300 people per day, and G1 reported that service should be restored within two days. Vale is the world's second largest mining company and the planet's biggest iron ore producer. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew over the hardest-hit areas, delivered food baskets to shelters, met with local officials and promised aid to repair infrastructure. He also voiced concerns that global climate change could be responsible for the unusually heavy rains and destruction.
"We need to look more seriously into the climate situation these days," said Silva. "Something is changing and we still have time to fix it."
Brazil's Health Ministry said it would send an emergency shipment of 265,000 doses of medicine to Maranhao to prevent possible outbreaks of intestinal diseases caused by contaminated floodwaters. Ferreira said meteorologists forecast at least another two more weeks of heavy rains in northern Brazil.
Floods and mudslides late last year in the southern state of Santa Catarina killed more than 100 people, displaced some 80,000 and set off a round of brutal looting in a devastated port city by people desperate for drinking water and food.