Death toll rises to 78 from mudslides after storm in Brazil

February 16, 2022 GMT

PETROPOLIS, Brazil (AP) — The death toll from devastating mudslides and floods that swept through a mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro state has reached 78, Gov. Claudio Castro said Wednesday afternoon.

The city of Petropolis was slammed by a deluge Tuesday, and Castro said almost 400 people were left homeless. Searchers picked through the wreckage throughout the day and 21 people were recovered alive.

Civilians joined official recovery efforts. Among them were Priscila Neves and her siblings, who looked through the mud for any sign of their disappeared parents, but found only clothing. Neves told The Associated Press she had given up hope of finding her parents alive.

And Rosilene Virgilio, 49, was in tears as she recalled the desperate pleas from someone she couldn’t save.

“There was a woman screaming, ‘Help! Get me out of here!’ But we couldn’t do anything; the water was gushing out, the mud was gushing out,” Virgilio told The Associated Press. “Our city unfortunately is finished.”

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Petropolis is a German-influenced city named for a former Brazilian emperor. Nestled in the mountains above the coastal metropolis, for almost two centuries it has been a refuge for people escaping summer heat and tourists keen to explore the so-called “Imperial City.”

Petropolis was among the nation’s first planned cities and features stately homes along its waterways. But its population has grown haphazardly, climbing mountainsides now covered with small residences packed tightly together. Many are in areas unfit for structures and rendered more vulnerable by deforestation and inadequate drainage.

The stricken mountain region has seen similar catastrophes in recent decades, including one that caused more than 900 deaths. In the years since, Petropolis presented a plan to reduce risks of landslides, but works have been advancing only slowly.

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The governor told reporters earlier that the situation “was almost like war” and that he was mustering all the state government’s heavy machinery to help dig out the buried area.

The state fire department said late Tuesday the area received 25.8 centimeters (just over 10 inches) of rain within three hours Tuesday -- almost as much as during the previous 30 days combined. Petropolis’ civil defense authority said moderate rain was expected Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Video posted on social media Tuesday showed cars and houses being dragged away by landslides, and water swirling through Petropolis and neighboring districts. On Wednesday, houses were buried beneath mud while appliances and cars were piled on streets where they had been swept the night before. Some people had attempted to flee the perilous hillsides.

“The neighbors came down running and I gave them shelter,” bar owner Emerson Torre, 39, recalled.

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But under torrents of water, his roof collapsed. He managed to get his mother and three other people out of the bar in time, but one neighbor and the person’s daughter were unable to escape.

“It was like an avalanche, it fell all at once. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Torre told the AP as rescue helicopters hovered overhead. “Every neighbor has lost a loved one, has lost two, three, four members of the same family, kids.”

Petropolis’ city hall declared three days of mourning. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro expressed solidarity while on a trip to Russia, as did his counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“May God comfort their family members,” Bolsonaro said Wednesday in a press conference in Moscow.

Southeastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains since the start of the year, with more than 40 deaths recorded between incidents in Minas Gerais state in early January and Sao Paulo state later the same month.

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Associated Press journalist Diarlei Rodrigues reported this story in Petropolis and AP writer David Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro. AP writer Diane Jeantet in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.