At least 94 people have died after heavy rains sent devastating mudslides and floods through a mountainous region of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state.
Petrópolis, the “imperial city” which was the summer getaway of Brazil’s monarchs in the 19th century, was directly in the path of the deluge when it hit on Tuesday.
The city’s mayor, Rubens Bomtempo, said the number of dead could keep on rising as searchers picked through the wreckage. Twenty-one people had been recovered alive.
Rio de Janeiro state governor, Claudio Castro, told reporters in Petrópolis: “The situation is almost like war … Cars hanging from poles, cars overturned, lots of mud and water.”
Civilians joined the official recovery efforts on Wednesday. Among them were Priscila Neves and her siblings, who looked through the mud for any sign of their disappeared parents, but found only clothing. Neves said she had given up hope of finding her parents alive.
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Rosilene Virgilio, 49, was in tears as she recalled the pleas for help from a woman she couldn’t save.
“Yesterday there was a woman screaming, Help! Get me out of here!’ But we couldn’t do anything; the water was gushing out, the mud was gushing out,” Virgilio told the Associated Press. “Our city unfortunately is finished.”
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Governor Cláudio Castro said that he was mustering all the state government’s heavy machinery to help dig out the buried area. He told journalists that soldiers were already working in the stricken region, which saw about 900 deaths from heavy rainfall in January 2011.
The state fire department said late on Tuesday the area received 25.8cm (just over 10in) of rain within three hours on Tuesday – almost as much as during the previous 30 days combined.
Video posted on social media showed cars and houses being dragged away by landslides, and water swirling through Petrópolis and neighboring districts. The Globo television network showed houses buried beneath mud in areas firefighters had not yet been able to access.
Several streets remained inaccessible on Wednesday as cars and household goods piled up, blocking access to higher parts of the city.
“The neighbors came down running and I gave them shelter,” bar owner Emerson Torre, 39, recalled.
But under torrents of water, his roof collapsed. He managed to get his mother and three other people out of the bar in time, but one neighbor and the person’s daughter were unable to escape.
“It was like an avalanche, it fell all at once. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Torre told the AP as rescue helicopters hovered overhead. “Every neighbor has lost a loved one, has lost two, three, four members of the same family, kids.”
Petrópolis city hall declared three days of mourning. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who is on a trip to Russia, said on Twitter that he instructed his ministers to deliver immediate support to the afflicted. “May God comfort the family members of the victims,” he wrote.
South-eastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains since the start of the year, with more than 40 deaths recorded between incidents in Minas Gerais state in early January and São Paulo state later the same month.