The death toll from floods and landslides that engulfed the mountain city of Petropolis rose to at least 117 on Thursday, and local officials said it could still rise sharply, with 116 more missing.
The Rio de Janeiro state government has confirmed the increasing loss of life, with many feared buried in the mud under the German-influenced city nestled in the mountains above Rio de Janeiro.
Floods and mudslides swept cars and homes down city streets on Tuesday during the heaviest downpour in decades. One video showed two buses sinking into a swollen river as passengers climbed out of windows as they scrambled for safety. Some could not reach the banks and were swept out of sight.
Survivors dug into the devastated landscape to find their loved ones even as more landslides appeared on the city’s slopes. A small slice on Thursday prompted evacuation but did not cause injuries.
As evening fell, heavy rain returned to the area, alarming residents and rescue workers. The authorities insisted on evacuating those living in high-risk areas.
Roslyn Virginia said her brother narrowly escaped, and considers it a miracle. But a friend has not yet been found.
“It’s heartbreaking to see people asking for help and have no way to help, no way to do anything,” Virginia told the Associated Press as the man comforted her. “It’s hopeless, the feeling of loss is so great.”
When some people tried to remove the mud, others began burying their missing relatives, with 17 funerals in the damaged cemetery.
Rio police said in a statement Thursday that about 200 of its officers are checking lists of the living, dead and missing by visiting checkpoints and shelters, as well as the city’s morgue. They said they were able to remove 3 people from the missing list after they were found alive at a local school.
“Every detail is important so that we can track down people,” said Rio police investigator Elaine Soto. “We need people to tell us the full name of the missing person, their identity card, their physical characteristics and the clothes that person was wearing.”
Petropolis, named after a former Brazilian emperor, was a haven for people escaping the summer heat and tourists eager to explore the so-called “imperial city”.
Its prosperity also attracted residents from poor areas of Rio and the population grew haphazardly, climbing mountains now covered with small dwellings crammed together, often in areas made more vulnerable by deforestation and inadequate drainage.
The state fire department said 25.8 centimeters (just over 10 inches) of rain fell within three hours on Tuesday — roughly as much as the previous 30 days combined. Rio de Janeiro’s governor, Claudio Castro, said at a press conference that the rainfall was the worst that Petropolis had received since 1932.
“No one can predict rain like this,” Castro said. According to meteorologists, more rain is expected during the rest of the week.
Castro added that nearly 400 people were made homeless and 24 people were pulled out alive. They were lucky, and they were few.
Lisa Torres Machado, 64, said the “hand of God” saved her family from tragedy.
“I left a small room in my mom’s house and hid there with my sister and brother,” Machado, a resident of Petropolis for three decades, told The Associated Press. “I can’t sleep. I still can’t believe what is happening. We have lost all our friends.”
The stricken mountainous region has witnessed similar disasters in recent decades, among them a disaster that caused more than 900 deaths. In the years since, Petropolis has introduced a plan to reduce landslide risks, but the business has progressed only slowly. The plan, submitted in 2017, was based on analysis determining that 18% of the city’s land is at high risk of landslides and floods.
Local authorities say more than 180 residents living in vulnerable areas have been sheltering in schools. More equipment and manpower is expected to assist in the rescue efforts on Thursday.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro expressed solidarity during his visit to Russia. Petropolis City Council declared three days of mourning for the tragedy.
Southeast Brazil has been punished by torrential rains since the start of the year, with more than 40 deaths recorded between accidents in Minas Gerais in early January and Sao Paulo later in the month.
Savarese reported from São Paulo. Video journalist Mario Lubau contributed to the Associated Press from Petropolis.
Associated Press journalist Deborah Alvares contributed to this report from Brasilia.
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