It started to rain, and then it didn't stop. It was biblical, 40 days and 40 nights—or at least it seemed that long. When it literally rains every day for a month straight, what's another 10 days or so—give or take? To top things off, being cooped up in a 42 ft. long, 10 ft. wide cocoon, with a 4 year-old and an 18 month-old rendered the time long, very long.
We were berthed in the yacht club in Florianopolis, Brazil, and had only been there a month when unprecedented downpours began in July, 1983, inciting historical flooding in southern Brazil. Brazilian infrastructure wasn't up to par to handle such a catastrophic situation so the local powers that be launched a cry for help to the sailors and members of the yacht club: Would anyone with a viable skiff, dinghy, or anything water-worthy be willing to volunteer and help out with disaster relief and search and rescue operations in the nearby town of Blumenau? The situation was desperate and the only resources available were that of on-duty soldiers and whatever meager assistance they were able, or allowed, to render.
Michel joined a contingent of volunteers from the Iate Clube da Florianopolis, packed up our inflatable Zodiac and little Seagull outboard engine, and and off they went for about four or five days. The yacht club actually organized quite an effort: a convoy with a trailer for the dinghies, and a large collection of food and water.
Blumenau was an odd study amidst the Brazilian landscape: an unlikely hamlet of much-preserved all things German, within a Portuguese language framework. Located about 70 miles inland from Florianopolis, Blumenau is first and foremost a “German” town, founded in 1850 by Dr. Hermann Bruno Otto Blumenau. Much of southern Brazil has a German heritage and the city of Blumenau reflects this in its architecture, historical landmarks, and a very popular Oktoberfest. Many Brazilian locals even strive to maintain their German language.
Upon arrival in the flood zone, Michel recounts total devastation, with people isolated on their rooftops and left to their own resources. Some chickens and cows had sought refuge on a few low-lying hilltops. Initially the yacht club team was charged with plucking people from rooftops and relocating them to some higher ground. He remembers the military just serving in a “disciplinary” capacity, making sure that people remained properly in line for food and water distribution. No life-saving effort on their part.
At one point Michel and other members of his team were frustrated with the ineffective soldiers when emergency food supplies were running low. They wanted to retrieve damaged items from some of the devastated grocery stores that had canned food trapped underwater. Some of this could be salvaged for distribution. Since Michel and a few others had brought some scuba diving gear, it would have been easy for them to retrieve some items. The soldiers would have none of it.
Michel also tells of a heart wrenching moment while maneuvering at a central town plaza when a man was trying to cross the rushing current in his makeshift skiff to join an anxious woman awaiting him on the other side. It happened so fast: The man set out on the water and within seconds he overturned, never to resurface, and was just swept away. The woman was beside herself, and there was nothing anyone could do. “It was such a devastating, helpless feeling to witness that, and not be able to do anything about it,” Michel remembered.
The rescue teams themselves were housed on the second floor of an electrical station. They would angle their boats up to the second floor window, and crawl inside for the night. Their last day was heralded one morning when they awoke to find the dinghies hanging from the second floor. The water had receded.
A month later, on the occasion of a road trip we undertook inland to Iguaçu Falls, part of the route we took went through Blumenau. Driving along the riverbank through the city, plenty of debris and plastic bags were hanging from the tall treetops, a testimony to how high the water had risen. To this day, the flooding of 1983 remains one of the worst such events in the annals of the area. As for us, aside from having a rather bad case of cabin fever, we stayed high, dry, and well protected. Although not necessarily fond ones, we still have vivid memories today of those 40 days and 40 nights.