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Brazil has to deal with about 47 million tons of trash left after devastating floods

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It has now been months, and the cleanup after massive flooding in southern Brazil continues. More than 170 people died, and thousands are still displaced by the record rainfall that engulfed them in May. Brazil is dealing with damages already in the billions of dollars, and as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the country faces a huge challenge with the growing amount of trash left behind by the floods.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Mounds of water-logged trash line the muddy street in front of 40-year-old Josiane Braga's small home in Canoas, a large city next to the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state.

JOSIANE BRAGA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "That part on top, that's what's left of my kitchen counters. And below, that's my daughter's bed," she says, pointing to rotten planks of shattered wood, drenched mattresses and mud-soaked clothes. The putrid smell from the huge, somewhat neat pile burns the nose.

J BRAGA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "That's 24 years of my life filled with mud and strewn out on the street," she says. Her husband, Vagner, 44-years-old, with an easy smile, tries hard to lighten the mood.

VAGNER BRAGA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "After 24 years of marriage, we lost everything in 24 hours in the year 2024." He chuckles nervously. Similar stories and equally high piles of rotting memories line the street as far as you can see. The working class Rio Branco neighborhood was underwater for weeks. More than five months of rain fell in the state in just a 15-day period. The earthen levee about a mile away couldn't hold back the enormous amounts of water spilling over the banks of the Jacui River. City officials say they are doing their best to get the trash out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUMP TRUCK CLANGING)

KAHN: Luciana Camba says he's lost track of how many trips his garbage crew has made.

LUCIANA CAMBA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I've never seen so much trash. It's a huge amount," says Camba. Municipal waste agency head, Carlos Alberto Hundertmarker, says he can only guess how much trash and debris he's dealing with.

CARLOS ALBERTO HUNDERTMARKER: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "We think we're looking at about 180,000 tons to dispose of, and that's just in the capital city of Porto Alegre," he says. But experts say initial estimates are always low. Guilherme Iablonovski is a geospatial data scientist with the United Nations and has studied global debris and trash generation after natural disasters and armed conflicts.

GUILHERME IABLONOVSKI: So we anticipate a lot of buildings having to be torn apart in the - you know, in the coming months. And that is going to create, you know, the largest portion of that estimate.

KAHN: He puts the number statewide at more than 47 million tons, not as much as Hurricane Harvey, one of the most costly natural disasters in U.S. history, but more than the debris left after wars in Mosul, Iraq and Aleppo, Syria. And not all debris disposal is equal.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR BRAKES HISSING)

KAHN: Gino Gehling, an environmental engineer, says cars - at least 200,000 - are a huge challenge with batteries full of toxic acid and tanks with fuel.

GINO GEHLING: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "This is an unprecedented challenge. We've never seen this before in Brazil," he says.

GEHLING: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "It will take time, but we'll figure it out," he says. We talk in front of a temporary site the state's transportation agency says is housing flooded cars. The lot sits empty. Brazil, unaccustomed to the natural disasters like its neighbors, doesn't have a very robust emergency and response systems. Trash manager Hundertmarker says his team worked up its emergency response in just four days after the floodwaters took over the capital.

(CROSSTALK)

KAHN: Just where many of those flooded, corroded cars might show up, has Fabio Teixeira worried. His Toyota showroom in Porto Alegre - just cleaned, painted and reopened after weeks underwater - is packed.

FABIO TEIXEIRA: We're very happy to be back on business.

KAHN: He's on the lookout for dishonest brokers, passing off flooded and corroded cars as clean.

TEIXEIRA: One of our worries is to be more cautious when we are going to appraise the cars that are coming because there's a big danger.

KAHN: This was a huge problem after Hurricane Katrina. Tens of thousands of flood-damaged cars were sold in states far from the disaster and even overseas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY SQUEALING)

KAHN: Vagner Braga hasn't even had time to think about his rotted, muddy car, still sitting in his driveway. He and his neighbors are trying to salvage anything they can from their flooded homes.

V BRAGA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "We are poor people. What are we going to do?" he says. "It's not like I can put up a for sale sign" - for his house or his car. "Who will buy it?" he says. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Canoas, Brazil. 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.

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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.