NITEROI, Brazil (Reuters) - Rescue workers dug out bodies and scoured for survivors on Thursday after a torrent of mud dislodged by heavy rain ravaged a hillside slum near Rio de Janeiro, burying dozens of residents.
The heaviest rains in more than 40 years, which started on Monday, have triggered close to 200 mudslides which pulverized shacks in hillside communities, killing 173 people and leaving thousands of people homeless in Brazil’s second-biggest city.
Search teams pulled out 10 bodies and rescued dozens of people from the wreckage of houses swept away by a large slide late on Wednesday that buried about 50 houses in the Bumba Hill slum in the city of Niteroi, across a bay from Rio.
Marlene Pineiro said she heard a loud noise as the earth began moving under her house and managed to jump out of a window before it collapsed completely.
“We ran and everything starting coming down ... the kitchen, my brothers’ room, the living room,” she said. “But in the other room it stopped, so when that happened we opened the window ... we jumped into the woods and ran away.”
The mudslide wiped out all traces of the houses, churches and stores in its path, leaving rubble and a swath of black earth amid the surrounding tropical forest.
Soil was piled as high as a two-story building at the bottom of the hillside. The slum had previously been a garbage dump, making the neighborhood more vulnerable to collapse.
Rescuers said the chances of finding more survivors was slim because of the lack of air pockets in the mud.
“This has been total chaos for the last three days. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said helicopter pilot Marcos Goncalves Maia.
Several local media outlets said 200 people were buried beneath the mudslide, some citing Rio’s civil defense agency.
The deputy governor of Rio state, Luiz Fernando Pezao, said about 200 people lived in Bumba Hill but there was no way to know how many were there when the landslide occurred.
“I don’t know what to do, I want to help but I don’t even know where to start. My cousins are buried in there, the agony is enormous,” said Gisele Pimenta, 30, a Bumba Hill resident, in an interview with Brazilian news network Globo.
Brazil’s federal government announced on Thursday an emergency fund of 200 million reais ($113) to help Rio state cope with the disaster, which paralyzed the city on Monday and Tuesday as roads flooded.
Authorities say at least 10,000 houses still are at risk of collapse and the national government has sent security forces to help with rescue operations.
The chaos caused by the rains has renewed attention on Rio’s poor infrastructure and the precarious living conditions of more than a million slum dwellers as it prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said the city would give top priority to finding those still trapped under mud and rubble, Globo reported, even if it meant diverting resources from fixing roads and improving transit in the city.
“The priority for all of us now is human lives, between opening roads and saving lives we would rather save lives,” he said.
Niteroi was the worst affected area with at least 97 people dead, the fire department said, while 52 were killed in Rio.
For a third day, Paes urged Rio residents to stay home or at least avoid traveling to the city center as weather forecasts called for rains to continue until the weekend.
Traffic was flowing normally in most parts of the city on Thursday in contrast to two days earlier when the rains turned highways into lakes, left drivers stranded in cars and forced some commuters to walk home through miles of soaked streets.
Writing by Brian Ellsworth, editing by Stuart Grudgings and Todd Eastham