Connect to share and comment

Carnaval? Not in Sao Luiz do Paraitinga.

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

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.”