Affairs

Environment

Living with the floods— São Paulo

Preface

From the end of the street, the water shimmers almost idyllically, like some distant pool or lake.

Transport, Weather

9 February 2010

From the end of the street, the water shimmers almost idyllically, like some distant pool or lake. But the nearer you get the stronger the stench and by the time you’re up close it is an almost radioactive shade of green.

That water, a noxious mix of rainwater, sewage, rubbish and chemicals, has engulfed the streets of the Jardim Romano neighbourhood for weeks now and shows no sign of ebbing. 


“At 5 o’clock everyone looks to the heavens,” resident Joana Macedo said of the regular evening downfalls. “It has become a ritual, everyone waiting for the rain.” 


It has rained on every one of the last 47 days in São Paulo, often with biblical intensity. Rainfall was 87 per cent above average in January and 77 per cent more than the usual December, making them the second and third rainiest months in the city’s history. 


The result has been daily chaos. Power lines have crashed, cutting off internet, phones and plunging entire neighbourhoods into darkness. The city’s airport has closed on several occasions as swirling winds and torrential rains made take-offs and landings hazardous. 


And in a city where traffic has long been a nightmare, getting around at night has become nigh on impossible. The rains have turned roads into rivers and rivers have burst their banks and flooded roads. Fallen trees have blocked streets. Tunnels have filled with water. Even the light railway flooded, forcing thousands of commuters to walk or take buses. Across the state, at least 75 people have died. 


The poor communities on the edges of the city have borne the brunt of the foul weather. São Paulo is a hilly city and many are built on slopes and near rivers. Clogged drains and already full reservoirs cannot cope with the deluge and in places such as Jardim Romano, 30km from São Paulo’s centre, the water has nowhere else to go but up streets and into houses.

“At about two or three in the morning we woke up with the sound of the water coming in the door,” Nilsa Novaes said of the January morning her house flooded. “We ran to save what we could.” 


Like many people here, Novaes threw clothes and personal belonging up stairs and onto shelves. She lifted her cooker and fridge onto beer crates and bricks. As her husband drove the car to higher ground to prevent it getting washed away, neighbours ran in to help. 


But the tide was relentless and chairs, tables, kitchen cabinets, cupboards and doors were ruined. Furniture that’s still to be thrown out is warped and stinking and bears a dirty tide mark about two feet from the floor. 


“We haven’t calculated how much it is going to cost us,” the 55-year-old Novaes said. “But you can’t get another dresser for under 1,500 reais and I bought that shelf for 900 reais less than three years ago.”

Now, the unpaved streets outside her door are covered in mud and puddles. The rains washed up dead snakes, frogs, fish and rats. Piles of ruined furniture sit by the side of the road. Throughout the neighbourhood, residents have laid walkways using planks of wood, ironing boards and concrete blocks. 


Life is getting back to normal for those on slightly higher ground. But the rainy season runs until March and more than 40 days and 40 nights of rain have already come and gone. With no end in sight, residents are joking of building an ark. 


“It’s just like that,” Novaes laughed with admirable black humour. “It’s a deluge.” 


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