PETROPOLIS, Brazil (AP) — The death toll from devastating mudslides and floods that swept through a mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro state has reached 38, local authorities said Wednesday.
The city of Petropolis was slammed by a deluge on Tuesday, and Mayor Rubens Bomtempo said the number of dead could rise as searchers picked through the wreckage.
Rosilene Virgilio, 49, was in tears as she recalled the pleas for help from a woman she couldn’t save.
“Yesterday there was a woman screaming, ‘Help! Get me out of here!’ But we couldn’t do anything; the water was gushing out, the mud was gushing out,” Virgilio told The Associated Press. “Our city unfortunately is finished.”
Petropolis is a German-influenced city named for former emperor Dom Pedro I. Nestled in the mountains above the coastal metropolis, for almost two centuries it has been a refuge for people escaping summer heat and tourists keen to explore Brazil’s “Imperial City.” It features stately mansions along its waterways, but its mountainsides are covered with homes packed tightly together, some of which lack proper foundations.
Gov. Claudio Castro said that he was mustering all the state government’s heavy machinery to help dig out the buried area. He told journalists that soldiers were already working in the stricken region, which saw almost more than 900 deaths from heavy rainfall in January 2011.
The state fire department said late Tuesday the area got 25.8 centimeters (just over 10 inches) of rain within three hours Tuesday — almost as much as during the previous 30 days combined.
Video posted on social media showed cars and houses being dragged away by landslides, and water swirling through Petropolis and neighboring districts. The Globo television network showed houses buried beneath mud in areas firefighters hadn’t yet been able to access.
Several streets remained inaccessible Wednesday as cars and household goods piled up, blocking access to higher parts of the city.
“The neighbors came down running and I gave them shelter,” bar owner Emerson Torre, 39, recalled.
But under torrents of water, his roof collapsed. He managed to get his mother and three other people out of the bar in time, but one neighbor and the person’s daughter were unable to escape.
“It was like an avalanche, it fell all at once. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Torre told the AP as rescue helicopters hovered overhead. “Every neighbor has lost a loved one, has lost two, three, four members of the same family, kids.”
Petropolis’ city hall declared three days of mourning. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who is on a trip to Russia, said on Twitter that he instructed his ministers to deliver immediate support to the afflicted.
“May God comfort the family members of the victims,” he wrote.
Southeastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains since the start of the year, with more than 40 deaths recorded between incidents in Minas Gerais state in early January and Sao Paulo state later the same month.