BACABAL, Brazil (AP) - Brazilians huddled in cow pens converted into emergency shelters Friday, as swollen rivers continue to rise and northern Brazil's worst floods in decades boosted the number of homeless to nearly 300,000. The death toll rose to 39, and coffins started popping out of the soaked earth.
More than 1,000 people forced from their homes were crammed into a sprawling complex of stables and wooden shacks that hosts the annual August cattle fair in this city of 95,000 surrounded by small farms and jungle.
Up to six people were staying in each pen, sleeping in hammocks, mattresses and on the floor. They cooked government handouts of rice and beans over open wood fires, many with the TVs they toted with them stacked among their belongings.
Others stayed in shacks normally used to sell trinkets and cattle products during the annual fair. The pigs, chickens and dogs they brought with them roamed a concrete courtyard where children kicked around balls.
Local health officials acknowledged sanitary conditions were deplorable and could lead to outbreaks of disease, but those staying in the stables said they worried conditions could be worse elsewhere if they are forced to go.
Luz Gomes said a cow pen felt like a safe temporary home for her three children, with her neighbors living in the stall next door after all were evacuated by flatbed truck as floodwaters swept through their poor neighborhood of wooden shacks and mud-brick houses.
"We've gotten used to being here, I've got my family by my side, we know this place and we don't know what we'd find in another shelter," said Gomes, while cradling her baby son.
None thought about returning home anytime soon as unusually heavy rains continued Friday, extending two months of rainfall across 10 of Brazil's 26 states. Three times the size of Alaska, the affected area stretches from the normally wet rainforest to coastal states known for lengthy droughts.
In Belterra, about 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) from Bacabal, the rains washed earth from a cemetery, dislodging four coffins that later washed up on riverbanks and sending an unknown number floating down the Tapajos River that feeds into the Amazon.
"The current was so strong that it dragged them away," said city official Edicley Dias.
Meteorologists blame the heavy rain on an Atlantic Ocean weather system that typically moves on by April - and they forecast weeks more of the same. And fleeing presented its own perils: In the same newly formed rivers that flood victims waded through or plied with canoes there swam anacondas, rattlesnakes and legless, rodent-eating "worm lizards," whose bite is excruciating.
Alligators also were seen swimming through many flooded cities and towns, and scorpions congregated on the same high ground as people escaping the rising water. No injuries to people from wild animals were reported.
Rivers still were rising in the hardest-hit state of Maranhao, where Bacabal is located. The surging torrents wrecked bridges and made it too dangerous for relief workers to take boats onto some waterways. Mudslides were stranding trucks, preventing them from delivering food and supplies to places cut off from civilization.
"They are stuck and waiting until we can clear the roads, which for some highways could be in a week if alternative routes aren't found," said Abner Ferreira, civil defense spokesman for Maranhao.
Brazil's Vale, the world's largest producer of iron ore, warned that it may not be able to meet obligations to buyers of the raw ingredient for steel because the floods have prevented shipments from being sent by rail from a huge Amazon mine to an Atlantic Ocean port for export.
Repairing and reopening the 560-mile (900-kilometer) railway closed since Monday depends on weather conditions, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA said in a statement. If the rains don't ease up, Vale said it could declare force majeure - is a clause in contracts that can free parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event beyond their control occurs.
Cleide Soede dos Santos, camped out at the fairgrounds, said her devastated neighborhood would probably take months to rebuild once waters recede.
"Our houses are falling down, and on my street there are houses that were completely destroyed because the river's flow was so strong," she said.
Ferreira said authorities were trying to improve conditions: "We are doing the best we can to find sanitary shelters so that people can live in adequate places."
The flooding in northern Brazil is the worst in 20 years, and experts have warned river levels including the Amazon could hit records not seen since 1953 by June.
Associated Press writers Alan Clendenning and Carolina Escalera contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.
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