A relentless downpour in a mountainous region of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state triggered flooding and massive mudslides that have killed at least 94 people, authorities said Wednesday, as they continued to search the wreckage for missing residents and braced for the toll to rise.
The devastation was most acute in Petrópolis, a city of about 300,000, which was hit by a historic deluge Tuesday, the force of the rain and quantity of water catching local officials by surprise.
“It’s almost a warlike situation,” Rio de Janeiro Gov. Cláudio Castro said at a news briefing. “All of our teams are mobilized: firefighters, departments and all other state agencies.”
Castro said it was “the greatest rain since 1932,” characterizing the catastrophe as so rare that it was difficult to take preventive measures.
Emergency responders have rescued 24 people, officials said, and at least 400 have been left homeless. Authorities do not know how many remain missing, and they have called in heavy machinery to help dig through the rubble.
For Brazil, which battles flooding and landslides every year during rainy season, the scenes from Petrópolis were painfully familiar, recalling a 2011 disaster that killed more than 900 in the same area. More recently, landslides in two states — Minas Gerais and São Paulo — led to more than 40 deaths in January, and they came just weeks after flooding in Bahia state left at least 21 dead and thousands displaced.
The country’s heavily populated southeast has proved especially vulnerable, and experts say climate change is exacerbating this deadly extreme weather.
Petrópolis, located about 40 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro city, was founded in the 1840s by Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who sought respite there from the scorching summer heat, and the region has remained a more temperate refuge. Petrópolis was one of the country’s first planned cities, but the population has since grown vertically, building precarious homes atop mountains that are especially at risk during downpours.
Images from this week’s rain and its aftermath showed torrents of water whipping through the city’s steep streets. It flooded public squares, inundating shops and homes. The mud overturned cars and swept aside structures.
Petrópolis Mayor Rubens Bomtempo said his city is “going through an extremely grave situation.”
“It was a difficult day, very complicated, even to understand the alterations happening in the territory,” Bomtempo said at a briefing. “Up to now, we don’t have a definitive dimension” of the damage done.
President Jair Bolsonaro, on a state visit to Russia, said he has spoken to local leaders and is “committed to helping others.”
“God comfort the families of the victims,” Bolsonaro said on Twitter.
First responders have set up a field hospital and a shelter, and a convoy of government trucks has been delivering aid supplies, including food, clothing and medicine, said Angela Góes, a spokesperson for the state civil defense ministry. More than 180 people still living in high-risk areas, which authorities fear could still be vulnerable in another storm, have been moved to local schools, she said.
“Our role now is to serve the population, to put life in the city so it can function again,” Castro, the state’s governor, said in a statement Wednesday evening. “We mobilized teams, machinery and we will invest whatever is necessary for the reconstruction of this municipality and to try to minimize the pain of these families who are victims of the rain.”
The search-and-rescue effort — which included hundreds of firefighters, military police and nine helicopters — also drew residents, who combed the piles looking for loved ones and neighbors.
Rosilene Virgilio, 49, told the Associated Press she heard someone pleading for help, screaming, “Get me out of here!”
“But we couldn’t do anything; the water was gushing out, the mud was gushing out,” Virgilio said. “Our city unfortunately is finished.”
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