Asas de Socorro pilot Victor Scarparo flies over flooded Rio Grande do Sul (credit: Asas de Socorro)
Disaster ResponseNatural EnvironmentWater and Sanitation

Asas de Socorro responds to one of Brazil’s worst ever floods

11th June 2024

Asas de Socorro pilot Victor Scarparo flies over flooded Rio Grande do Sul (credit: Asas de Socorro)

Asas de Socorro’s Victor Scarparo flies over flooded Rio Grande do Sul (credit: ADS)

Rio Grande do Sul – Brazil’s most southerly state – is experiencing its worst ever climate change catastrophe due to unprecedented rainfall since April. In response, MAF affiliate Asas de Socorro (ADS) has been delivering lifesaving supplies, rescuing and medevacking the afflicted, and flying in health professionals to ease the suffering

By May, low-lying areas of Porto Alegre – Rio Grande do Sul’s capital city – were completely under water.

May 1941 held the city’s previous record when Porto Alegre’s main river, the Guaíba, rose to 4.75 meters and flooded 15,000 homes.

63 years later on 5 May 2024, a new city record was set when it rose to 5.33 meters, flooding over 300,000 homes and impacting 45,000 businesses.

90% of Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul has been affected by floods (credit: Asas de Socorro)

90% of Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul has been affected by floods (credit: ADS)

This time, floods have wreaked havoc far beyond Porto Alegre, affecting over 90% of Rio Grande do Sul, which has a land mass greater than the UK (source: Al Jazeera).

Even homes and businesses situated in mountain towns north and west of Porto Alegre have been washed away.

A total of six hundred thousand people are homeless and over a million are without electricity and drinking water. Comms are badly affected. At least 175 people are dead.

Roads have turned into rivers and stadiums have turned into lakes. Porto Alegre’s Salgado International Airport is expected to remain closed until the end of the year due to damage caused by two months of rain falling in just three days.

Reconstruction of the state is likely to cost around US$4 billion. Authorities are calling it the worst climate disaster in southern Brazil.

Asas de Socorro are transporting supplies & medevacking / evacuating the afflicted (credit: Asas de Socorro)

ADS are transporting supplies & medevacking / evacuating the afflicted (credit: ADS)

An unexpected diversion saves lives

The first mission for Asas de Socorro pilots Victor Scarparo and Jacob Anderson is to pick up 400 kg of lifesaving medical supplies from Campo de Marte Airport in São Paulo State, 710 miles north of Porto Alegre on Brazil’s east coast.

However, as is often the case with ongoing natural disasters, bad weather can hamper relief efforts. Heavy rain forces São Paulo Airport to close, so the pair have to divert to Jundiaí Airport instead, which is 35 miles north-west of São Paulo.

Fortunately, this is not a wasted trip. Jundiaí Airport authorities give Jacob and Victor a critical supply of insulin to be delivered to Porto Alegre.

The drug – donated by a hospital in Jundiaí – will save the lives of people living with diabetes in Rio Grande do Sul who have lost everything in the floods.

Pilot Jacob Anderson holds insulin, which will save diabetics’ lives in Rio Grande do Sul (credit: Asas de Socorro)

Jacob loads insulin, which will save diabetics’ lives in Rio Grande do Sul (credit: ADS)

Next, the duo drop off food aid in Novo Hamburgo, just north of Porto Alegre, which has encountered extensive flood damage.

Here, they pick up a woman badly injured in the floods and medevac her to hospital in Passo Fundo in northern Rio Grande do Sul so that she can access medical treatment.

The view from the air is shocking sighs Victor:

‘The aerial view is devastating. We see submerged neighbourhoods and collapsed lives. In this moment, the magnitude of the tragedy and the importance of the mission become clear.’

Victor Scarparo – Asas de Socorro pilot (MAF’s affiliate in Brazil)

Battling bad weather to rescue the afflicted

The next day, they head to Pelotas, south of Porto Alegre with a hold full of more medication and other essentials including bottles of water, food and toilet rolls.

Jacob loads lifesaving supplies onto the plane (credit: Asas de Socorro)

Jacob loads lifesaving supplies onto the plane (credit: ADS)

However, incessant rain foils their plan and they are forced to divert to Santa Maria Airport, which is west of Porto Alegre.

The sky over Rio Grande do Sul is very cloudy and heavy rain complicates the pilots’ plans. They don’t know when they can take off again, but they are trusting in the Lord says Victor:

‘Unfortunately, the aircraft will stay on Santa Maria Airport’s tarmac tonight, so please pray because there is a lot of rain forecast. Pray for God to protect the plane so that nothing happens to it and that tomorrow we can take off and continue God’s mission.’

The duo are stuck in Santa Maria for a couple of nights due to bad weather (credit: ADS)

The next morning, heavy storms continue to stall their flight to Pelotas. ‘Safety first’ means they have to pause their mission for now says Victor:

‘We have people to evacuate in Pelotas, but due to the heavy storms in the region, it will be impossible to fly for the next three days. We have to pause our work, and God willing by the beginning of next week, we will resume our flights and help those in need.’

Victor (L) & Jacob (R) fly Eneida & Marcelo, who have been made homeless, to Annapolis (credit: Asas de Socorro)

Victor (L) & Jacob (R) fly homeless Eneida & Marcelo to Annapolis (credit: ADS)

A few days later, they are able to continue their mission to Pelotas where they meet an elderly woman called Eneida and her autistic son Marcelo – both lost nearly everything in the floods.

Asas de Socorro is transferring them to Annapolis Airport where they will catch a connecting flight to the capital Brasilia to live with Eneida’s other son explains Victor:

‘We’re going to evacuate Eneida & Marcelo. They were affected by floods in Pelotas & lost their home. The little they have left is in their luggage. We’re flying them so that they can start their lives over. They deserve a fresh start in another place.’

Victor Scarparo – Asas de Socorro pilot (MAF’s affiliate in Brazil)

Watch Asas de Socorro’s response to the floods.

A killer disease carried by the floods

Dental surgeon Maria Laura who lives in Rio Grande do Sul has been providing emergency dental care to people affected by the floods.

She’s been flying with Asas de Socorro to reach areas impossible to access by road. Maria explains that she wasn’t at home when the floods hit:

‘I was in São Paulo on the day everything flooded in Porto Alegre and I couldn’t return straight away. Many friends close to me lost everything and are extremely affected. We now have a very serious sanitary situation in Porto Alegre.

‘Now that I’m emotionally a bit more stable, I’m going home to work in the shelters and health units to help people heal during this difficult time. Along with Asas de Socorro, we are delivering medicine and hospital supplies.

‘The cities are starting to dry out and the Guaiba River is beginning to recede, but we have a huge clean up job ahead of us. I will arrive safely with Asas de Socorro and please God everything will work out.’

Maria is referring to a fatal waterborne disease called leptospirosis, which has already killed at least four people in the wake of the floods. 54 cases have been confirmed across the state and there are another 800 suspected cases (source: The Telegraph).

Weeks of torrential rain contaminated by infected rat urine has spread throughout the towns of Rio Grande do Sul. Open sewers and substandard rubbish collection, which attract more rats, can exacerbate the spread of the disease.

Infected people need immediate access to antibiotics, but when healthcare infrastructure collapses due to a disaster like this, drugs can be difficult to access.

According to Brazil’s health service, over 3,000 health centres including hospitals, pharmacies and clinics, have been impacted by the floods.

The environmental cost of food production

Many of Rio Grande do Sul’s rice & soybean crops have been devastated (credit: Asas de Socorro)

Many of Rio Grande do Sul’s rice & soybean crops have been devastated (credit: ADS)

According to a new study by ‘World Weather Attribution’, these devastating floods in Brazil were made twice as likely because of the destruction of trees and the burning of fossil fuels.

Rio Grande do Sul – Brazil’s key agricultural state – produces 70% of the country’s rice crops and dairy products for national consumption. The state is also the world’s biggest producer and exporter of soybeans.

The state’s high level of food production comes at a high price. Not only will the destruction of Brazil’s bread basket inevitably inflate the cost of food for Brazilians and the rest of the world, the environmental cost is huge too.

In a bid to produce as much food as possible, natural flood defences such as riverside forests and marshes have been cleared to make way for fields. But it’s the vegetation and trees, which help the soil to retain water, preventing it from accumulating on the surface.

Vegetation also holds the soil in place, preventing erosion and landslides. Without tree roots to hold everything in place, many tons of soil have been washed away in the floods.

According to scientific organisation, MapBiomas, Rio Grande do Sul has lost 22% of its native vegetation (8.9 million acres) from 1985 to 2022.

Scientists say disasters of such scale will become more common unless deforestation and greenhouse emissions – which lead to global warming – are reversed.

Asas de Socorro on the frontline fighting southern Brazil’s greatest climate disaster (credit: Asas de Socorro)

ADS on the frontline fighting southern Brazil’s greatest climate disaster (credit: ADS)

Listen out for the next episode of the ‘Flying for Life’ podcast, which will explore how MAF responds to climate change disasters like the floods in Brazil and drought and floods in Kenya.