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Brazilian Dialogue

Flood devastates Brazilian communities

Late in the month of July, here in the parish of Santa Maria Madalena, Rev. Emile April and I had an ominous conversation. We were both lamenting the blatant corruption, lies and noise that always accompany a municipal election campaign. Prophetically, my brother stated that there is only one thing worse than an election: a flood.

A few days later, on Aug. 1, the flood arrived. None of us had slept very well the night before. It had been raining heavily off and on for the whole week, with reports of some flooding in the neighbouring state, just upstream from us. I had made a trip down to the river the same night . . . things didn't look too bad. We had already come close to flooding several times . . . "likely" just another false alarm.

The climate here is very harsh. In the blazing heat of the summer months, the Mundaś River is reduced to a trickling stream. Water is sometimes rationed. Everything withers, turning brown. The dust is almost intolerable. The people pray for rain.

The last several years have been very dry here, the majority of small farmers without irrigation had really been suffering. This winter, however, the rains have been plentiful, our parish being turned into a veritable paradise -- cattle grazing in lush green pastures, all forms of vegetation growing in leaps and bounds. Water, one of the predominant symbols of our baptism, brings new life. Alas, it also brings death and destruction.

About 5:30 a.m. there was a commotion at the front door. Several families had arrived, frantically searching for a place to stay. "We had to leave our homes in a hurry, there was no time to grab anything. For the love of God, please let us stay in the parish centre!"

Uni?o dos Palmares was in a state of emergency. We hurried down to the river to see what was happening -- traffic jams, people shouting, the last of the larger vehicles loaded with families and a few meagre possessions leaving the flooded streets. Chaos.

People living near the river had been warned around midnight of the impending danger. Most waited too long, thinking that the waters would recede. Ten thousand people had to leave their homes, seeking shelter in schools, warehouses, clubs and community centres. We watched helplessly as the river continued to swell. We climbed a steep hill to get a better view. The bridge was already under water. Streets disappeared, with water rising to rooftop level on many houses.

As I tried filming the unfolding tragedy, survivors of the previous flood of 1989, standing close by, wept quietly. The next day I would understand why these people were crying. I never stopped praying the entire day. The lines from Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald seemed to ring true: "Does anyone know where the love of God goes..."

Al Gerwing