March 29, 2004

Brazil storm kills two, destroys homes

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- A spiraling storm lashed the coast of southern Brazil, killing two people, injuring at least 30 others and destroying hundreds of homes, Civil Defense officials said Sunday.

Meanwhile, Brazilian and U.S. meteorologists disagreed over whether the storm was a hurricane -- the first on record in the South Atlantic.

"The winds are getting less intense now, but the damage is substantial," Santa Catarina state Civil Defense official Marcio Luiz Alves said Sunday morning.

A child in the city of Torres in Brazil's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul died in a collapsed house when an area of beach resorts was hit by the high winds, the civil defense said.

On a road close to the nearby city of Criciuma, in Santa Catarina state, a tree felled by the winds smashed a car, killing the driver and severely wounding his wife. In total, at least 30 people were injured in Santa Catarina state.

Five fishermen were missing off the coast of Santa Catarina after their ship sank, Alves said. Brazil's navy was searching for the missing on Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, another vessel with seven people on board that had been reported missing during the night was found with its crew unhurt during early morning hours.

In Criciuma the strong winds destroyed 200 homes and damaged another 2,000. The civil defense on Sunday morning was still calculating the damage throughout Santa Catarina state, but said that possibly the number of homes destroyed could be in the thousands.

The storm, dubbed Catarina by meteorologists, hit the coasts of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost states, late Saturday with heavy rains and estimated winds of up to 60 mph (97 kph).

The storm also downed trees and knocked out power for several hundred thousand people across some 40 municipalities, according to civil defense officials in the two states.

The storm hit land around the beach resort of Laguna, a town of 40,000 inhabitants. It also brushed Torres, a city of 400,000 in the neighboring state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Laguna and Torres are about 500 miles (805 kilometers) south of Rio de Janeiro.

Rio Grande do Sul Civil Defense Director Colonel Paulo Osorio said fire and police officials were on standby in his state.

The center of the storm on Sunday morning was situated over the southern coast of Santa Catarina state, but decreasing in intensity, both the Brazilian Center for Weather Prediction and Climatic Studies and the Santa Catarina civil defense said.

Meanwhile, a debate raged between Brazilian and U.S. meteorologists over whether the storm was a hurricane.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Florida estimated the storm was a full-fledged, Category I hurricane with central winds of between 75 mph and 80 mph (121 kph to 129 kph), making it the first hurricane ever spotted in the South Atlantic. AccuWeather, Inc., a private forecasting company in Pennsylvania, said it also considered the storm a hurricane.

Brazilian scientists disagreed, saying the storm had top winds of 50 mph to 56 mph (80 kph to 90 kph), far below the 75 mph (121 kph) threshold of a hurricane.

"Winds and rains will not be significant, so we don't need to alarm the population," meteorologist Dr. Gustavo Escobar of the Brazilian Center for Weather Prediction and Climatic Studies had said on Saturday. Satellite images showed a spiral-shaped mass of clouds with an open area in the center. Escobar called it an "extra-tropical cyclone," which is usually characterized by less intense winds.

Brazilian scientists, however, on Sunday expressed surprise by the intensity of the storm. Escobar said the damage it caused led to believe that winds during the night could have been above 50 mph (80 kph). Marcelo Moraes, a meteorologist at the Integrated Climate Center of Santa Catarina state said Sunday winds could even have been in the range of 94 mph (150 kph), enough to classify it as a hurricane.

Brazil has no wind-measuring devices in the affected areas, though.

U.S. scientists said they were baffled by the Brazilian position.

"We think the Brazilians are, quite frankly, out to lunch on this one," Michael Sager, an AccuWeather meteorologist said on Saturday. "I think they're trying to play it down and not cause a panic. I don't know what they're doing, but they're obviously wrong."

All sides said they were basing their estimates on satellite data, since the United States has no hurricane hunter airplanes in the area and Brazil doesn't own any.

Sager said the storm had a clear, well-defined eye and that it had lasted for more than 36 hours. Storms that are not hurricane-strength sometimes form strong eyes, but not for that long, he said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.