RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Summer rains sent tons of red mud and torrents of water rushing down mountainsides in towns outside Rio, enveloping homes of rich and poor alike and killing at least 239 people in 24 hours. Some survivors clung to trees to escape the water and landslides.
Rescuers used heavy machinery, shovels and bare hands to dig through debris in a search for survivors Wednesday. It was not immediately clear how many people were rescued. At least 50 remained missing, and officials feared that figure would rise.
In Teresopolis, a town 40 miles (65 kilometres) north of Rio, the rain overflowed creeks and flash floods swept over already water-logged mountainsides. Brick and wooden shacks built on hillsides stripped of trees, washed away in surging earth and water, leaving behind only a long trail of rusty red mud.
Heavy rains and mudslides kill hundreds of people across Brazil each year. Especially punished are the poor, whose rickety homes are often built on steep inclines with little in the way of foundations.
At least 114 people died in Teresopolis, the local Civil Defence agency said. The mountains saw 10 inches (26 centimetres) of rain fall in less than 24 hours.
Floodwaters continued to gush down the mountains Wednesday, though the rainstorm had ended. Survivors waded through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, trying to reach higher ground. Many tried desperately to find relatives, though phone service was out in the region and many people were still missing hours after the rain stopped.
“There are so many disappeared — and so many that will probably never be found,” said Angela Marina de Carvalho Silva, who believes she may have lost 15 relatives to the flood, including five nieces and nephews.
“There was nothing we could do. It was hell,” she said in a telephone interview.
Carvalho Silva took refuge in a neighbour’s house on high ground with her husband and daughter, and watched the torrential rain carry away cars, tree branches and animals and tear apart the homes of friends and family.
“It’s over. There’s nothing. The water came down and swept everything away,” said her husband, Sidney Silva.
In the neighbouring mountain town of Nova Friburgo, at least 107 people died, according to an emailed statement from the Rio state Civil Defence department. Among the dead were four firefighters who were helping in the rescue effort. Three other firefighters were listed as missing after their fire truck was hit by a mudslide.
With the new disasters, more than 300 people have died since Christmas across the southeastern portion Brazil.
President Dilma Rousseff signed a measure Wednesday sending $461 million to towns in Rio and Sao Paulo states that were damaged during the recent rains. The money will go to repairing infrastructure and preventing future disasters.
The president planned to fly over the most severely damaged parts of Rio on Thursday.
The mayor of Teresopolis, Jorge Mario Sedlacek, decreed a state of emergency, calling the calamity “the worst to hit the town.” About 800 search-and-rescue workers from the state’s civil defence department and firefighters dug for survivors.
In neighbouring Petropolis, 18 people were confirmed dead by the city’s mayor.
The death toll in the region was expected to rise as firefighters reach remote valleys and steep mountainsides where neighbourhoods were destroyed, Teresopolis’s mayor said. About 1,000 there were left homeless.
“This is the largest catastrophe in the history of this town,” Sedlacek said in an interview with Globo TV.
Heavy rainfall also caused havoc earlier in Minas Gerais state north of Rio, where 16 people died in the past month and dozens of communities are in a state of emergency.
In Sao Paulo, flooding paralyzed main thoroughfares in the capital city since Sunday and 21 people died in collapsed homes, mudslides and flooding throughout the state.
Rio state Gov. Sergio Cabral called on the navy to lend helicopters to firefighters working as rescuers.
“We mourn the loss of lives in this tragedy caused by the rain,” Cabral said in a statement.
The storm ended Wednesday morning, but the water-logged terrain remained unstable and a threat to communities perched on the sheer hillsides.