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Carnaval? Not in Sao Luiz do Paraitinga.

Residents adapt as town known for its charming colonial buildings and Carnaval finds itself underwater.

SAO LUIZ DO PARAITINGA, Brazil — This valley town of 11,000, nestled between cow-flecked green hills and the Paraitinga River, was known for its charming colonial buildings and old-fashioned Carnaval.

But the river flooded over on New Year’s weekend, knocking down at least 20 of 90 state-landmarked buildings and leaving dozens of others structurally damaged and potentially unsalvageable. Hundreds of other homes were flooded, some destroyed, and thousands of people left homeless. Next month’s Carnaval has been canceled.

No one died during the flood, in part thanks to the river as well: as soon as waters began to rise on Jan. 1, the town’s three rafting companies mobilized their guides, who spent about 24 hours working non-stop to ferry stranded people — and pets — from second story balconies and rooftops. As a result, another disaster — the mudslides that killed more than 70 in Angra dos Reis, a coastal resort in Rio de Janeiro state, attracted much more international attention.

Residents take a break from cleaning to stage a bullfight.
(Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

The rafters were the unlikely heroes. “They get an A+,” said Margarida Pereira dos Santos, a grandmother and restaurant owner who was plucked from the second story of her house as waters rose. “They saved a lot of people.” Her restaurant destroyed, she spent much of this week cooking in her second-story kitchen for family and neighbors whose one-story houses were completely flooded out.

Founded in the 18th century and growing rich in the 19th century during a coffee boom, Sao Luiz do Paraitinga’s economy depends on tourism for survival. The town was typically packed during Carnival and another annual festival, with a steady stream of Brazilian and foreign tourists coming to admire the buildings, eat the hearty rural cuisine and participate in adventure sports in surrounding mountains and rivers.

Residents in low-lying areas are used to lifting furniture off the ground when the river overflows, but had never seen anything like this. And they did what anyone does when floods come: fled to higher ground.

Fabia Souza and Alessandra Figueira were among the many townspeople to hike partway up one of the surrounding hills to watch as the historic center went under. “Everyone was in a panic,” said Figueira, “because there was nothing we could do.”

Souza could see the landmark building that housed her clothing shop on the historic town square, go underwater. And it was there that the two watched the deeply Catholic town’s historic church, where she prays every morning before opening the shop, collapse.

The flood waters retreated over the weekend, leaving high tree limbs dotted with mattresses, stuffed animals, even a computer monitor. Hundreds of Hercules undertook the seemingly impossible task of clearing and cleaning the interiors of their soaked, mud-slicked homes