PETROPOLIS, Brazil (AP) — The Rio de Janeiro state government has confirmed 94 deaths from floods and mudslides that washed away homes and cars in the city of Petropolis. But even as families prepared to bury their dead, it was unclear on Thursday how many bodies remained trapped in the mud.
Rubens Bomtempo, mayor of the German-influenced town nestled in the mountains, did not even offer an estimate of the number of people missing, with recovery efforts still ongoing.
“We don’t know the full extent of that yet,” Bomtempo said at a press conference on Wednesday. “It was a tough day, a tough day.”
More than 24 hours after the deadly deluge early Tuesday, survivors were digging for lost loved ones. The Rio de Janeiro public prosecutor’s office said in a statement late Wednesday that it had compiled a list of 35 people who have not yet been located.
Footage posted to social media showed torrents dragging cars and houses down the streets and water swirling around the city. Video showed two buses plunging into a swollen river as its passengers climbed out of the windows, scrambling for safety. Some did not reach the banks and were swept away, out of sight.
On Wednesday morning, houses were buried under mud while devices and cars were piled up in the streets.
Petropolis, named after a former Brazilian emperor, has been a haven for people fleeing the summer heat and tourists eager to explore the so-called “imperial city”.
Its prosperity also attracted the poorest inhabitants of the poorer regions of Rio. Its population grows randomly, climbing the sides of the mountains now covered with small residences crowded together. Many are in areas unsuitable for structures and made more vulnerable by deforestation and inadequate drainage.
The state fire department said 25.8 centimeters (just over 10 inches) of rain fell in three hours on Tuesday, nearly as much as the previous 30 days combined. Rio de Janeiro Governor Claudio Castro told a news conference that the rains were the worst Petropolis had received since 1932.
“Nobody could predict rain as heavy as this,” Castro said. More rain is expected for the rest of the week, according to meteorologists.
Castro added that nearly 400 people were left homeless and 24 people were found alive.
They were lucky, and they were few.
“I could only hear my brother shouting, ‘Help! To help! My God ! Rosilene Virginia told The Associated Press as a man comforted her. “It’s very sad to see people asking for help and having no way to help, no way to do anything. It’s hopeless, such a great sense of loss.
The stricken mountainous region has seen similar disasters in recent decades, including one that killed more than 900 people. In the years that followed, Petropolis presented a plan to reduce the risk of landslides, but work progressed only slowly. The plan, presented in 2017, was based on an analysis determining that 18% of the city’s territory was at high risk of landslides and floods.
Local authorities say more than 180 residents who live in at-risk areas are housed in schools. More equipment and manpower should help rescue efforts on Thursday.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his solidarity during a trip to Russia. Petropolis City Hall declared three days of mourning for the tragedy.
Southeast Brazil has been punished by heavy rains since the start of the year, with more than 40 deaths recorded between incidents in the state of Minas Gerais in early January and in the state of Sao Paulo later on same month.
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.
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