TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (Reuters) - Rescue workers dug desperately for survivors on Thursday and struggled to reach areas cut off by floods and landslides that have killed at least 443 people in one of Brazil’s deadliest natural disasters in decades.
Torrents of mud and water set off by heavy rains left a trail of destruction through the mountainous Serrana region near the city of Rio de Janeiro, toppling houses, buckling roads and burying entire families as they slept.
“It’s like an earthquake struck some areas,” said Jorge Mario, the mayor of Teresopolis, where 185 people were killed and scores more were feared dead.
“The death toll is going to climb a lot. There are a lot of people buried who can’t get help because rescue teams can’t get there,” Mario said, adding that three of the town’s neighborhoods were destroyed by the flooding.
The mudslides swept away the homes of rich and poor alike in and around Teresopolis and other towns, likely causing billions of dollars in damage. But the brunt of the disaster was borne by poorer rural residents in houses built in risky areas without formal planning permission.
The floods have not affected Brazil’s main export crops — soy, sugar cane, oranges and coffee — although they could push up local food prices further as the small Serrana region is an important producer of fruit and vegetables for the Rio metropolitan area.
Television images showed rescuers trying to haul residents from raging floodwaters, and going through the ruins of homes in search of survivors, often finding only corpses. One success came when a 6-month-old baby was rescued alive from the rubble of a house, drawing thunderous cheers from residents.
One woman held a dog in the ruins of her house as powerful waters tore at the remaining walls. She grabbed a rope thrown by residents from a nearby rooftop and was eventually pulled to safety, after dropping the dog into the vicious current.
In Nova Friburgo, a rural town first settled by Swiss immigrants, at least 201 people died, local officials said.
President Dilma Rousseff, facing the first major challenge of her presidency since taking office on January 1, called it a tragedy that could not be blamed only on mother nature.
“Housing in areas of risk is the rule in Brazil rather than the exception,” she said in Rio after flying over the flooded region and visiting Nova Friburgo, where much of the damage was done to homes built precariously at the base of steep hills.
“When there aren’t housing policies, where are people who earn no more than twice the minimum wage going to live?”
Landslides and flash floods are common in much of Brazil, often exposing poor urban planning and a lack of preventive action by authorities.
Hillsides and riverbanks in the area about 60 miles north of Rio, which will co-host the 2014 World Cup and host the 2016 Olympics, collapsed after the equivalent of a month’s rain fell in 24 hours from Tuesday night.
Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper said it was the worst natural disaster to hit Brazil in four decades. More heavy rain is forecast for the coming days, complicating rescue efforts and raising the risk of further mudslides.
Raging floodwaters and rivers of mud totally submerged some houses and left cars crumpled like tin cans. More than 13,500 people were also left homeless, authorities said.
Rescue teams had yet to reach several of the worst-hit parts of Teresopolis, including one neighborhood where about 150 houses were believed to have been destroyed.
Dozens of bodies were lined up outside a police station in the city center awaiting identification before being moved to a church, taxi driver Vinicius Bittencourt told Reuters.
“The bodies were there because there is no more space in the morgue,” he said. “People are walking in the street crying. I’ve seen people carrying dead children wrapped in blankets.”
At least 39 people also died in Petropolis, a picturesque town nestled in the mountains that served as the summer residence for Brazil’s royal family in the 19th century. Eighteen more were killed in nearby Sumidouro.
Firefighters used heavy machinery to remove debris blocking their path to some of the worst-affected areas.
“The situation is critical, but we have to advance, we can’t stop,” said fire department colonel Jose Paulo Miranda.
Rousseff has earmarked 780 million reais ($460 million) in emergency aid for the region. The government said it was also sending 210 troops from the National Public Security Force, including officials to help identify bodies.
Two navy helicopters are assisting rescue operations and the navy is also sending a mobile field hospital to the area.
Additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes, Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Stuart Grudgings and Todd Benson; Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney