Up to 450 dead in Brazil's worst disaster in decades

08:15, January 14, 2011      

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Cars buried in debris in flooded Teresopolis, Brazil.

Up to 450 people were killed near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, after torrents of mud and water swept down hillsides Thursday in the country's worst natural disaster witnessed in decades.

Rivers of thick, muddy sludge cascaded past apartment blocks in several towns, flowing into single-story homes and overturning cars as they surged down the hills carrying along everything in their path.

"I thought I was going to die," said Ilair Pereira de Souza, a 53-year-old woman who had a miraculous escape when neighbors on a nearby balcony threw her a rope. "Help me, help me," she pleaded, in scenes replayed throughout the day on Brazilian television.

She grabbed for the rope, and disappeared underneath the muddy waters, before reappearing, clinging to the slim lifeline, but without her dog Beethoven, which she had been clutching in her arms.

Freakish rainstorms early Wednesday in the mountainous area just north of Rio de Janeiro dumped the equivalent of a month's rain in just a few hours, sending mudslides slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.

At least 442 people have died, according to local officials and media in the worst affected towns of Novo Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis.

President Dilma Rousseff, clad in black rubber boots, walked the mud-covered cobblestone streets of Novo Friburgo, where 201 deaths were recorded, took a helicopter tour of the disaster zone and pledged "strong action" by the government.

"It's very overwhelming. The scenes are very shocking," she said.
The death toll was expected to rise further as rescuers arrived in remote hamlets, many cut off to all but helicopter access.

Tropical rains, common at this time of year, intensified as a cold front moved in, unleashing the tragedy before dawn, while families slept.

"In eight hours... it rained as much as for the entire month," said Paulo Canedo, a hydrologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

The deluge "caused avalanches of rocks and soil that carried everything down with them, picking up houses," he said.

As weather forecasters warned of more rain in the hours and days ahead, rescuers aided by desperate residents clawed through rubble and mud looking for survivors or bodies.

Officials told AFP 185 people had died in Teresopolis, while 39 bodies had been counted in Petropolis.

Another 17 bodies were discovered Thursday in a village called Sumidouro.

Churches and police stations were turned into makeshift morgues, the smell of decomposing corpses heavy in the warm air. Thousands of survivors took refuge in shelters.

But among the despair, were a few triumphs.

Firemen managed to save a six-month-old baby and the 25-year-old father who had been buried in mud in each others' arms. The father, Wellington, told the G1 news website that his wife and his mother-in-law died when mud swamped their home.

The scenes of crumbled towns and the stench of death, though, transformed the Serrana region, a popular historical getaway for wealthy Rio residents seeking cooler temperatures.

The disaster also provided the first big test for Rousseff, who only took power on January 1.

Her government has released 470 million dollars in initial emergency aid and sent seven tons of medical supplies.

But her failure to make any public statement or emotional display immediately following the catastrophe contrasted with the style of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who cultivated a gruff and gregarious father image in public.

The last major natural disaster in Brazil was in March 1967, when mudslides killed 300 people in a coastal town called Caraguatatuba, Brazilian media said.


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