At least 94 people have been killed in mudslides and floods that tore through a mountainous region of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state, local authorities said.
The disaster in the city of Petropolis followed three hours of torrential rain on Tuesday, and Rio de Janeiro Governor Claudio Castro said the number of dead could rise as searchers pick through the wreckage. Almost 400 people have been left homeless, he said.
“The situation is almost like war … Cars hanging from poles, cars overturned, lots of mud and water still,” Castro told reporters at the scene.
Video posted on social media showed cars and houses being dragged away by landslides, and water swirling through Petropolis and neighbouring districts. The Globo television network showed houses buried beneath mud in areas firefighters had not yet been able to access.
“It’s devastating. We never could have imagined something like this,” one fleeing resident, Elisabeth Lourenco, told the AFP news agency.
She was clutching two bags in which she had stuffed some clothing when emergency officials ordered everyone in the area to evacuate. Some 25.8 centimetres (more than 10 inches) of rain fell on the Petropolis area in the space of just three hours on Tuesday – almost as much as during the previous 30 days combined.
“When the rain was falling hardest, a huge amount of mud came pouring down the hillside, and some tree branches fell on my house,” said the 32-year-old manicurist, on the verge of tears.
Petropolis’s city hall said in a statement the deluge left “a high number of incidents and victims” and that rescue and recovery were continuing.
The state fire department said more than 180 soldiers had been deployed while civilians had also joined official recovery efforts.
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 news agency she had given up hope of finding her parents alive.
Rosilene Virgilio, 49, was in tears as she recalled the desperate 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 news agency. “Our city unfortunately is finished.”
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is on a trip to Russia, said on Twitter he had instructed the government to deliver immediate support to affected communities.
“May God comfort the family members of the victims,” he wrote.
Southeastern Brazil has been inundated 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 Sao Paulo state later the same month.
Petropolis, a German-influenced city named for a former emperor, declared three days of mourning.
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 Brazil’s “Imperial City.” It features stately mansions along its waterways, but its mountainsides are covered with homes packed tightly together, some of which lack proper foundations.
Castro, the governor, 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 almost more than 900 deaths from heavy rainfall in January 2011.
Several streets remained inaccessible on Wednesday as cars and household goods piled up, blocking access to higher parts of the city.
“The neighbours 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 neighbour 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 neighbour has lost a loved one, has lost two, three, four members of the same family, kids.”