Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, likened Brazil’s colonial-era city of Petropolis to a war zone after mudslides and floods killed at least 117 people with hundreds of rescuers still searching the debris.
“I saw intense destruction. It looked almost like there had been a war,” Bolsonaro said after flying over the disaster in the town located in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro that was hit by torrential rainfall.
With many people still unaccounted for on Friday, officials said the death toll was expected to increase further as the region reels from the heaviest rains in almost a century.
“I am here hoping to find my wife. I’m sure she’s here. The downstairs neighbour said she was on the balcony when the mudslide hit,” said Marcelo Barbosa, a resident.
Rio de Janeiro’s civil defence head Leandro Monteiro is among the more than 500 rescue workers, along with neighbours and relatives of the victims who are still searching for survivors.
“I’ve been living here for 44 years and never saw anything like that … All my friends are gone, they are all dead, all buried,” resident Maria Jose Dante de Araujo said.
Bolsonaro has pledged federal assistance to help the population and start rebuilding the area.
The development comes at a critical time for Bolsonaro, who is expected to run for re-election in October. He has suffered recently from his lowest approval rating since his term began in January 2019 — partially a result of his response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has given Brazil a death toll of more than 600,000, the second highest in the world.
That leaves him in a vulnerable position ahead of his likely re-election bid, where he is expected to square off against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who, early opinion polls show, holds a sizeable lead.
Meanwhile, more than 700 people had to leave their homes and take shelter in local schools and other makeshift accommodations. Rio’s Governor Claudio Castro on Wednesday compared the affected area with a war zone.
The local morgue was forced to use a refrigerated truck as a backup as more victims were being brought in while other bodies still awaited to be identified by their families.
The downpours, which on Tuesday alone exceeded the average for the entire month of February, caused mudslides that flooded streets, destroyed houses, washed away cars and buses, and left gashes hundreds of metres wide on the region’s mountainsides.
It was the heaviest rainfall registered since 1932 in Petropolis, a tourist destination in the hills of Rio de Janeiro state, popularly known as the “Imperial City” as it was the summer getaway of Brazilian royalty in the 19th century.
“I don’t even have words. I’m devastated. We are all devastated for what we have lost, for our neighbours, for our friends, our homes. And we are still alive, what about those who are gone,” asked resident Luci Vieira dos Santos.