The death toll from devastating mudslides and floods that swept through a mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro state has reached 94, a Brazilian government agency tweeted Wednesday. Twenty-four people had been recovered alive, and more than 400 people were left homeless.
The city of Petropolis was slammed by a deluge on Tuesday, and Mayor Rubens Bomtempo said the number of dead could rise as searchers pick through the wreckage.
Civilians joined the official recovery efforts early 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 told The Associated Press she had given up hope of finding her parents alive.
And Rosilene Virgilio, 49, was in tears as she recalled the desperate pleas from someone she couldn’t save.
“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.”
Petropolis is a German-influenced city named for a former Brazilian emperor. Nestled in the mountains above the coastal metropolis, for almost two centuries it has been a refuge for people escaping summer heat and tourists keen to explore the so-called “Imperial City.”
Petropolis was among the nation’s first planned cities and features stately homes along its waterways. But its population has grown haphazardly, climbing mountainsides now covered with small residences packed tightly together. Many are in areas unfit for structures and rendered more vulnerable by deforestation and inadequate drainage.
The stricken mountain region has seen similar catastrophes in recent decades, including one that caused more than 900 deaths. In the years since, Petropolis presented a plan to reduce risks of landslides, but works have been advancing only slowly.
Govt. Claudio Castro told reporters on Wednesday that the situation “was almost like war” and that he was mustering all the state government’s heavy machinery to help dig out the buried area.
“I think that it is not time yet to discuss numbers,” Castro said, according to Reuters. “Our work now is to try to find survivors in this horror scene, to clean and to rescue any bodies that are here.”
The state fire department said late Tuesday the area received 25.8 centimeters of rain within three hours Tuesday — almost as much as during the previous 30 days combined. Petropolis’ civil defense authority said moderate rain was expected Wednesday afternoon and evening.
Video posted on social media Tuesday showed cars and houses being dragged away by landslides, and water swirling through Petropolis and neighboring districts.
The Globo television network on Wednesday showed houses buried beneath mud in areas firefighters hadn’t yet been able to access. Several streets remained inaccessible 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.”
Petropolis’ city hall declared three days of mourning. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro expressed solidarity while on a trip to Russia, as did his counterpart Vladimir Putin.
“May God comfort the family members of the victims,” he wrote on Twitter.
Southeastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains since the start of the year, with more than 40 deaths recorded between incidents inin early January and Sao Paulo state later the same month.
Last month, 10 people died when a cliff collapsed onto tourist boats on a lake in a. Heavy rain may have precipitated the collapse, firefighters said.