356 killed in Brazil mudslides

Cars sit in debris in a flooded street in Teresopolis, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, Wednesday Jan. 12, 2011. Torrential summer rains tore through Rio de Janeiro state's mountains, killing at least 140 people in 24 hours, Brazilian officials said Wednesday. (AP)

Rescuers searched through layers of mud Thursday for survivors and bodies after freakishly heavy rains caused landslides and torrents to slice through three towns near Rio de Janeiro, killing at least 356 people.

Media said the calamity, devastating the mountain towns of Teresopolis, Petropolis and Novo Friburgo, was Brazil's worst natural disaster in 43 years.

President Dilma Rousseff was to fly over the zone Thursday. Her government has released $470 million in initial emergency aid and sent seven tons of medical supplies.

The death toll from the area, known as the Serrana, has risen progressively as rescuers spread out into remote hamlets.

Destroyed roads and bridges meant that access in many cases was possible only with one of seven helicopters deployed to help rescue efforts. Telephones and power systems had collapsed in several locations.

The catastrophe struck before dawn Wednesday, as families were asleep in their homes.

Tropical rains are common at this time of year in southeastern Brazil. But they were suddenly intensified by a cold front, bringing weeks' worth of water crashing down in a matter of hours.

Houses collapsed, hillsides gave way and rivers broke their banks.

"One woman tried to save her children but her two-month-old baby was carried away by a torrent like a doll," said Angela, a 55-year-old resident of Teresopolis.

Local officials in Teresopolis told AFP that 152 people died, while those in Petropolis said 36 died there.
Brazilian television said 168 people died in nearby Novo Friburgo, including three firemen engulfed by mud as they carried out a rescue. That town remained largely cut-off, accessible mainly by air.

Churches and police stations were turned into makeshift morgues.

The pervasive shadow of death transformed the soaring, lush region, which had become a tourist getaway for Rio residents drawn to its cooler temperatures and history as a vacation spot for 19th-century Brazilian nobility.

In the streets, residents helped the 1,000 rescue workers search through the rubble of collapsed buildings and the mud to find bodies or survivors. As the initial shock subsided, locals comforted each other and wept at the destruction wrought.

Weather forecasters said more rain was expected in the coming days, and the civil defense service urged residents in risky areas to evacuate their houses. More than 2,000 people in Teresopolis alone were homeless.

Moderate rain fell Thursday, keeping the saturated ground slick and increasing the danger of more mudslides.
A local spokesman for the Teresopolis mayor's office said the death toll could climb further Thursday because "there are some villages we haven't yet been able to get to."

One of those was a district known as Campo Grande, where officials estimated 2,000 homes had been destroyed and up to 150 people may have been buried.

The 356 fatalities counted so far made the disaster the worst since March 1967, when mudslides killed at least 300 people in a town called Caraguatatuba, Brazilian media said.

By way of comparison, Brazil recorded 473 deaths for all of last year from heavy rains.

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