This was the phrase I heard most last week while covering the devastating mudslides in the Serrana region of Rio de Janeiro state: "I have never seen anything like this in my life."

Ten biggest natural disasters in Brazil

Meningitis epidemic, Sao Paulo, January 1974: 1,500 dead.
- Mudslides, Rio state, January 2011: 785 dead (as of this writing -
- Floods in Rio, January 1967: 785 dead.
- Mudslides, Sao Paulo, March 1967: 436 dead
- Floods, Rio, January 1966: 373 dead.
- Mudslides, Rio, January 1966: 350 dead.
- Floods, Alagoas state, March 1969: 316 dead.
- Floods, Espirito Santo and Minas Gerais states, January 1979: 300 dead.
- Floods, Rio, March 1984: 300 dead.
- Floods, Rio, 1988: 300 dead

Source: UN and O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper

The "official" death toll has steadily climbed to 785. But by the time you read this, it’s almost certain to be even more. Most rescuers will tell you - off the record - that it’s probably over at least 1,000. (Note: There are still over 400 missing and presumed dead).

The truth is this: There will never be an exact count of how many people died because not all the bodies will be discovered under the vast areas still covered in mud and debris.

Some bodies will have washed down the river, never to be seen again. And others, in particularly remote areas, eyewitnesses say were buried by relatives in shallow graves and will likely never be logged on the official death count.  

Already, it has ranked as the worst natural disaster in Brazil’s history and is quickly approaching the 1974 meningitis epidemic in Sao Paulo. (It's up for debate, I suppose, if a meningitis outbreak is classified as a natural disaster or not).

But for the elderly man, Manuel, whom we met under the rain as he watched firefighters dig for the bodies of his three adult children and his two-year-old grandson buried under mud or the woman who waited anxiously outside the morgue to identify bodies of loved ones or the other young father who lost three sons and had an emotional breakdown outside the morgue before burying one son in the town cemetery ... they didn’t need any official death count to tell them it was the worst tragedy in Brazil’s history.

For them - and many others who lost a brother, father, mother, grandmother or friend - they already knew it.

The UN is now saying the events in Rio last week will go down as the eighth worst mudslide disaster in history, anywhere in the world. The worst was in the then Soviet Union in 1949 when about 12,000 people died. The second worst was in Peru, in 1941, that claimed the lives of roughly 5,000 people. 


One of the victims, covered in a black tarp, until firefighters could come to retrieve him [Gabriel Elizondo]

More photos here