Carnaval? Not in Sao Luiz do Paraitinga.

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

Sixty-three-year-old Joana Brotas Lopes spent Thursday removing mountains of sludge-covered clothes, furniture and books from her house near the river. Her son-in-law, Benedito Divino, lent a hand, and soon there was a mini-mountain of ruined belongings piled in the street outside. Up and down the block, similar mountains appeared. “Everything, everything, everything I had was here,” she said. “For now, I think we can save a bed, and a table.”

Sueli Aparecida da Silva, 49, had a big stake on one block of Capitao Antonio Carlos Street: her house at #33, a house she owned and rented at #45 and her inn, Pousada Nativas, at #48. The building with the inn also housed a corn-milling business, and her family also owned a clothing shop around the corner. A native of the town, De Silva was unworried about the flooding — it had never reached her block before — and headed across the street around 6 a.m. to help prepare breakfast for her inn house of guests who had come for the long weekend.

The kitchen and guest rooms are on the second floor, and when she looked out the window, the water had risen almost to the second story. “My house was no longer there,” she said. “I had this horrible sensation. I don’t know how to swim.” Rafts came by and took her guests, then her aunt’s family down the block, and finally her and the remaining family members to safety. They had to lie nearly flat in the rafts to avoid getting tangled in power lines.

But De Silva couldn’t stop smiling on Thursday, as staff cleaned out the inn and she cleaned out her house. There was no plan, she said, to stop construction on a second inn, the 32-room Nativas II, being built just outside the town. “We’re betting on tourism,” she said. “We know it will really fall for a while. But we believe in our city.”

In fact, the outlook in the town was amazingly upbeat as townspeople bearing hoes and boxes of emergency supplies passed on the streets. The traditional Brazilian greeting, “Tudo bem?,” which literally means, “All is well?,” seemed almost unbearably ironic, but only, apparently, to outsiders.

The store owner, Fabia Souza, was happy to have salvaged an armless white plastic mannequin the flood waters had spit out of the store before the building collapsed. “The next store is going to be named ‘Flood Fashion,’” she joked.

Across the main square mudcaked workers had found an equally mud-caked cow outfit in a artisan’s shop they were cleaning out; one donned the costume, and the other grabbed a red mat from one of the ubiquitous trash mounds, and a playful bullfight ensued in the middle of the mess.

As residents worked to keep people clothed and fed (and smiling), architects from the federal government’s Institute for National Historic and Artistic Heritage were at work examining the city’s historic structures that remained and beginning to evaluate what could be saved. One of the architects, Antonio das Naeves Gameiro, said that Sao Luiz do Paraitinga had been within a month of achieving federal landmark status, a vital step in what had been hopes of having it declared a Unesco World Heritage site.

In a telephone interview, the institute’s Sao Paulo superintendent, Ana Beatriz Galvao, said officials will turn over much of the decision-making on what to reconstruct and how to reconstruct it to residents. The main church, she noted, need not be an exact replica. “The idea is not to create an Epcot Center,” she said. “The final word will go to the people of Sao Luiz do Paraitinga.”