January 23, 2011 / 5:48 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 1-Brazil's landslide death toll reaches 806

* Hundreds missing, feared buried beneath mud and wreckage

* Disaster now second-worst in Brazil’s history - newspaper (Updates death toll, adds number of people homeless, displaced)

SAO PAULO, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The death toll from floods and landslides that devastated a mountainous region near Rio de Janeiro has reached 806, state authorities said on Sunday, as rescue teams scoured the mud for the hundreds still missing.

More than 20,000 people have also been forced from where they live or made homeless in the area, according to the statement posted on the state government’s website.

The disaster now ranks as the second-worst recorded in Brazil’s history, according to United Nations data published in the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper on Saturday, eclipsed only by a meningitis outbreak that killed 1,500 people in 1974.

Entire hillsides collapsed last week in the Serrana region, about 60 miles (97 km) north of Rio, after the equivalent of a month’s rain fell in 24 hours.

Avalanches of mud and water ripped through mainly poor communities, tossing cars atop buildings and burying some families alive.

At least 207 people were recorded missing earlier this week, suggesting the final death toll could be close to 1,000. [ID:nN19260703]

Local officials estimated at least 300 were missing.

Fears are now growing about disease. Alexandre Padilha, the health minister, visited the worst-affected town of Nova Friburgo on Saturday, and state health authorities have warned against coming into contact with contaminated river water.

Landslides and flash floods are common in much of Brazil at this time of year, but the scale of the disaster has prompted renewed concerns that authorities failed to plan or take action to prevent the disaster.

Earlier this week, the Brazilian government vowed to set up a national early warning system that could alert communities to approaching natural dangers. (Reporting by Samantha Pearson; Editing by Todd Eastham)

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