In one of the country’s worst natural disasters, rivers of mud tore through towns in the mountainous Serrana region outside Rio de Janeiro, levelling houses, throwing cars atop buildings and leaving thousands of people seeking shelter.
“The rain did not stop at dawn and is continuing in the morning, which is making the rescue efforts more difficult,” said Lieutenant Rubens Placido, a fireman in the hard-hit town of Nova Friburgo. “The number of deaths is going to rise quite a bit. There are still a lot of people buried.”
The flooding killed at least 529 people, according to local and state authorities, but rescuers are uncovering more victims buried under wrecked homes and toppled buildings. More than 13,500 people have been left homeless.
Emergency teams have to reach the worst-hit areas on foot and dig through the rubble by hand to find survivors because vehicles and heavy equipment still cannot cross blocked roads, the O Globo television news network reported.
The state of Rio de Janeiro sent military police to maintain order in the area after reports food had been looted from stores.
The disaster likely caused billions of dollars in damage and has presented President Dilma Rousseff with her first crisis only two weeks after taking office.
Beyond the loss of life and property, the damage from the rains could further boost food prices in parts of southeastern Brazil, a major concern for the government.
The Serrana region is an important producer of fruit and vegetables for the Rio area but the floods have not affected Brazil’s main crops such as soy, sugar cane, oranges and coffee.
Rio, famed for its beaches and Carnival, will co-host soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and host the Olympics in 2016.
“WE CAN’T STOP”
In Teresopolis, where at least 223 people were killed, bodies had to be taken to a nearby church after the town’s morgue filled up. Officials showed pictures of the corpses to residents to help them identify family members.
In Nova Friburgo, a rural town first settled by Swiss immigrants, at least 246 people died. In Petropolis, once the summer residence for Brazil’s royal family, 41 people were killed, while at least 19 died in Sumidoro.
Rousseff, who has earmarked 780 million reais (290 million pounds) in emergency aid, briefly visited the region to meet local officials. The government said it was sending 210 members of the National Public Security Force to help identify bodies.
Hillsides and riverbanks in the area, about 60 miles (100 km) north of Rio, collapsed after the equivalent of a month’s rain fell in 24 hours from Tuesday night.
Rescuers worked to haul people from raging floodwaters and combed ruined homes for survivors, often finding only corpses.
But a 6-month-old baby was rescued from the rubble of a house, drawing thunderous cheers from residents.
One woman held a dog in the ruins of her house as surging water tore at the remaining walls. She grabbed a rope thrown from a nearby rooftop and was pulled to safety but had to drop the dog into the vicious current.
“The situation is critical but we have to advance. We can’t stop,” said fire department colonel Jose Paulo Miranda.
Landslides and flash floods are common in much of Brazil, often exposing poor planning and a lack of preventive action by authorities.
Rousseff told reporters that construction of housing in high-risk areas is “the rule in Brazil rather than the exception,” adding that the lack of adequate housing policy contributed to the problem. Reuters