At least 335 people have been killed and the death toll is likely to rise after heavy rains caused flooding and mudslides near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Driving rains sent tons of rusty red earth sliding into mountain towns, killing at least 335 people and leaving dozens more missing, Brazilian media reported Thursday.
Hillsides and river banks in the picturesque Serrana region north of Rio de Janeiro buckled under about 10 inches of rain — the equivalent of a month’s rainfall in 24 hours — destroying houses and killing many people early Wednesday, rescue officials said.
Television footage showed many houses buried in mud as desperate residents and rescue workers searched for survivors.
“There was no way of telling which house would fall. Rich and poor — everything was destroyed,” resident Fernanda Carvalho was quoted as saying by the Globo network’s website.
In the hardest-hit town of Teresopolis, hundreds of family members crowded at a morgue Wednesday night waiting to identify bodies. Officials there raised the death toll from 130 to 146, Globo reported.
The death toll in the region was expected to rise as firefighters reached remote valleys and steep mountainsides where neighborhoods were destroyed, Teresopolis’s mayor said. About 1,000 people there were left homeless.
“I saw six bodies on my street,” said 53-year-old Antonio Venancio, whose house was inundated with mud but remained standing. “We just don’t know what to do in the face of something so horrible.”
At least 34 people were killed in neighboring Petropolis and 155 in the town of Nova Friburgo, Globo reported, citing local officials.
About 800 search-and-rescue workers from the state’s civil defense department and firefighters dug for survivors.
‘Died while they were sleeping’
Before rescue attempts were called off because of darkness, searchers used heavy machinery, shovels and bare hands trying to find survivors. In one town, firefighters rescued a 25-year-old man who held his 6-month-old son for 15 hours until they were both pulled out alive. The man’s wife and mother-in-law were feared dead.
“I believe the number of dead is much more than was announced so far,” Rio state environment secretary Carlos Minc was quoted as saying by Globo television after he flew over the region. “Many people died while they were sleeping.”
About 50 people were believed missing just in Teresopolis, Mayor Jorge Mario said.
“Rescue teams are still arriving in the areas that have been worst affected,” he said.
Minc described what he saw as a “striking tragedy,” Globo reported. “From what I saw here today I can say [it] is the biggest catastrophe in the history of Teresopolis,” he continued.
Heavy rains and mudslides kill hundreds of people across Brazil each year, especially during the South American summer. The worst hit are the poor, whose rickety homes are often built on steep slopes with weak or no foundations.
In Teresopolis, about 62 miles north of Rio, deluges filled creeks and the overflows swept over already water-logged mountainsides. Brick and wooden shacks built on hillsides stripped of trees washed away in surging earth and water, leaving behind only a long trail of mud.
Floodwaters continued to gush down the mountains for hours after rainstorms ended Wednesday. Survivors waded through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, trying to reach higher ground. Many tried desperately to find relatives, though phone service was out in the region and many people were still missing hours after the rain stopped.
“There are so many disappeared — and so many that will probably never be found,” said Angela Marina de Carvalho Silva, a resident of Teresopolis who feared she may have lost 15 relatives, including five nieces and nephews.
“There was nothing we could do. It was hell,” she said in a telephone interview.
Carvalho Silva took refuge in a neighbor’s house on high ground with her husband and daughter, and watched the torrential rain carry away cars, tree branches and animals and rip apart the homes of friends and family.
“It’s over. There’s nothing. The water came down and swept everything away,” said her husband, Sidney Silva.
Among the dead in Nova Friburgo were four firefighters who were helping in the rescue effort. Three other firefighters were listed as missing after their fire truck was hit by a mudslide.
President Dilma Rousseff signed a measure Wednesday sending $461 million to towns in Rio and Sao Paulo states that were damaged during the recent rains. The money will go to repairing infrastructure and preventing future disasters.
Heavy rainfall also caused havoc earlier in Minas Gerais state north of Rio, where 16 people died in the past month and dozens of communities are in a state of emergency.
In Sao Paulo, flooding paralyzed main thoroughfares in the capital city since Sunday and 21 people died in collapsed homes, mudslides and flooding throughout the state.
Rio state Gov. Sergio Cabral called on the navy to lend helicopters to firefighters working as rescuers.
“We mourn the loss of lives in this tragedy caused by the rain,” Cabral said in a statement.
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