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Brazil's extreme weather is creating the likelihood of climate change refugees


Five months of rain in just 15 days. That's what soaked one state in southern Brazil in May. The water flooded hundreds of cities, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced more than 400,000 people. Now officials in Brazil are talking of relocating whole towns. That would add to the growing number of people worldwide being called, quote, "climate change refugees." Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Maicon Andre Mattes and his wife Ana Paula Rabuske didn't wait for officials to tell them they can't rebuild their small home here on the banks of the Taquari River in Rio Grande do Sul state. They already moved.

ANA PAULA RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: (Speaking Portuguese).

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: Looking at piles of drenched rubble, Rabuske says they have nothing to come back to. Everything's lost. This is the third time in nine months the river filled their house with water. With their two kids, they've moved 30 miles away, far from this river that has been both the life and curse of this verdant farm community - Cruzeiro do Sul.

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: This time before she rushed out, Rabuske says she turned around and thought, "oh, our photos, the kids' school project," she says. As the water was rising, she found a plastic box, shoved everything she could inside.

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: And stuck it high on top of a tall dresser she thought was safe from the water.

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "Every time we come back here, I just keep thinking I'll find the box."

(Speaking Portuguese).

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: (Speaking Portuguese).

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: But she says she never does. Diego Alexandre Dutra says he can't picture living anywhere else.

DIEGO ALEXANDRE DUTRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "I was born here. Lived here for 40 years, my parents for 50. They died here," he says. His neighborhood of Passo de Estrela, just around the river's big bend, is obliterated.

DUTRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: As the water rose, he ran up a hill and says he watched as house after house was ripped off the ground and washed away. Six hundred of the 800 homes here are gone.

DUTRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "We lost everything," he says, all his tools he used to work as a handyman. He has no money to go anywhere and waits for the government to rebuild. The disaster is being called Brazil's Hurricane Katrina. But Brazil doesn't get hurricanes and isn't plagued by other natural disasters like earthquakes its neighbors routinely deal with. Its emergency systems are not very robust, especially for such a widespread natural disaster. Christopher Cunningham Castro, a meteorologist with Brazil's national weather monitoring agency, says 90% of cities in the state were affected, with some cities breaking world records.

CHRISTOPHER CUNNINGHAM CASTRO: At some days, we ranked five or six position in most rainy days in the world.

KAHN: An abundant water supply has long fueled the state's rich soy, tobacco and rice crops, generating about 6% of the nation's economic output, says geologist Rualdo Menegat, with Rio Grande do Sul's Federal University.

RUALDO MENEGAT: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "For hundreds of years, this has been a beautiful place with all its rivers, lakes and delta. But the waterways are now a huge liability with climate change," he says. "We are now very vulnerable." The state and the capital, Porto Alegre, with 4.5 million residents in the metro area, is the latest city worldwide battling extreme rains and floods - from Afghanistan and Australia to China and Kenya. According to the World Bank, in the next 25 years, more than 200 million people will be forced from their homes due to global warming, earning many the moniker climate change refugees.

LORENA FLEURY: In a local situation like this, it wouldn't be the most accurate way to call.

KAHN: Lorena Fleury, a sociologist at the Federal University in Rio Grande do Sul, says Brazil's flood victims technically aren't refugees since they don't have to leave their country, but she says the term is catching on in Brazilian media.

FLEURY: That's especially because it evokes this anxiety and this fear of losing someone's roots.

KAHN: She, too, was uprooted until floodwaters receded from her neighborhood in the capital. The international airport remains shuttered, and reconstruction estimates for the state easily top $4 billion. It's unclear how much of that total includes relocating hard-hit towns.


KAHN: At Cruzeiro do Sul's tiny gymnasium, volunteers are putting up 23 temporary plywood cubicles. Hundreds are still living in three shelters in town. City works manager Paulo do Nascimiento says businesses, city hall, everything has to move to higher ground.

PAULO DO NASCIMIENTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: But he says it's hard to get through to some people, especially those who have lived here for generations. The 49-year-old has been in local government for years. I asked him if his stance is making him unpopular. At first, he chuckles.


KAHN: But then his face turns red, and tears start streaming down his cheeks.

DO NASCIMIENTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "I live for this place. This is my home, too," he says. But he says it will flood again. Ana Paula Rabuske, who already left for higher ground with her family, agrees.

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "People can't live here anymore," she says. "This area belongs to the river."

RABUSKE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: And she says, "Mother Nature has come back to reclaim her place."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.