A relentless downpour in a mountainous region of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state triggered flooding and massive mudslides that have killed at least 94 people, authorities said Wednesday, as they continued to search the wreckage for missing residents and braced for the toll to rise.
The devastation was most acute in Petropolis, a city of about 300,000, which was hit by a historic deluge Tuesday, the force of the rain and quantity of water catching local officials by surprise.
“It’s almost a warlike situation,” Rio de Janeiro Gov. Claudio Castro said at a news briefing. “All of our teams are mobilized: firefighters, departments and all other state agencies.”
Castro said it was “the greatest rain since 1932,” characterizing the catastrophe as so rare that it was difficult to take preventive measures.
Emergency responders have rescued 24 people, officials said, and at least 400 have been left homeless. The number of people still missing is unknown, so authorities have brought in heavy equipment to dig through the debris.
For Brazil, which battles flooding and landslides every year during rainy season, the scenes from Petropolis were painfully familiar, recalling a 2011 disaster that killed more than 900 in the same area. More recently, landslides in two states — Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo — led to more than 40 deaths in January, and they came just weeks after flooding in Bahia state left at least 21 dead and thousands displaced.
The country’s heavily populated southeast has proved especially vulnerable, and experts say climate change is exacerbating this deadly extreme weather.
Petropolis, located about 40 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro city, was founded in the 1840s by Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who sought respite there from the scorching summer heat, and the region has remained a more temperate refuge. Petropolis was the first planned city in the country. However, the area has seen a rise in population, with precarious houses built on top of mountains, which are particularly vulnerable to flooding during heavy downpours.
Images taken during this week’s torrential rains and their aftermath show how water whipped through steep streets of the city. The water flooded the streets, flooding shops and houses. It swept away structures and overturned vehicles.
Petropolis Mayor Rubens Bomtempo said his city is “going through an extremely grave situation.”
“It was a difficult day, very complicated, even to understand the alterations happening in the territory,” Bomtempo said at a briefing. We don’t know the extent of the damage.
President Jair Bolsonaro, on a state visit to Russia, said he has spoken to local leaders and is “committed to helping others.”
“God comfort the families of the victims,” Bolsonaro said on Twitter. First responders set up a hospital in the area and also a shelter. A convoy of trucks from government has delivered aid, which included food and medication, according to Angela Goes (spokesman for the state civil defence ministry). More than 180 people still living in high-risk areas, which authorities fear could still be vulnerable in another storm, have been moved to local schools, she said.
“Our role now is to serve the population, to put life in the city so it can function again,” Castro, the state’s governor, said in a statement Wednesday evening. We mobilized machinery, teams and will invest what is necessary to rebuild this municipality.
Rosilene Virgilio, 49, told the Associated Press she heard someone pleading for help, screaming, “Get me out of here!”
“But we couldn’t do anything; the water was gushing out, the mud was gushing out,” Virgilio said. “Our city unfortunately is finished.”