Rio De Janeiro: The death toll from floods and landslides that devastated a mountainous region near Rio de Janeiro rose to 348 on Thursday, according to authorities in the three worst-affected Brazilian towns.
Heavy rains earlier in the week killed 13 people in Sao Paulo state, raising the death toll in southern Brazil to 361.
Hillsides and riverbanks in the picturesque Serrana region north of Rio collapsed after the equivalent of a month’s rain fell in 24 hours, destroying houses and killing many people as they slept early on Wednesday.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed a decree on Wednesday releasing 780 million reais ($460 million) in reconstruction funds for the affected areas. She was due to fly over the region early on Thursday.
Rescuers used heavy machinery, shovels and bare hands to dig through debris in a search for survivors Wednesday. It was not immediately clear how many people were rescued. At least 50 remained missing, and officials feared that figure would rise.
In Teresopolis, a town 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio, the rain overflowed creeks and flash floods swept over already water-logged mountainsides. Brick and wooden shacks built on hillsides stripped of trees, washed away in surging earth and water, leaving behind only a long trail of rusty red mud.
Heavy rains and mudslides kill hundreds of people across Brazil each year. Especially punished are the poor, whose rickety homes are often built on steep inclines with little in the way of foundations.
Floodwaters continued to gush down the mountains Wednesday, though the rainstorm had ended. Survivors waded through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, trying to reach higher ground. Many tried desperately to find relatives, though phone service was out in the region and many people were still missing hours after the rain stopped.
“There are so many disappeared _ and so many that will probably never be found,” said Angela Marina de Carvalho Silva, who believes she may have lost 15 relatives to the flood, including five nieces and nephews.
“There was nothing we could do. It was hell,” she said in a telephone interview.
Carvalho Silva took refuge in a neighbor’s house on high ground with her husband and daughter, and watched the torrential rain carry away cars, tree branches and animals and tear apart the homes of friends and family.
“It’s over. There’s nothing. The water came down and swept everything away,” said her husband, Sidney Silva.
In the neighboring mountain town of Nova Friburgo, at least 107 people died, according to an e-mailed statement from the Rio state Civil Defense department. Among the dead were four firefighters who were helping in the rescue effort. Three other firefighters were listed as missing after their fire truck was hit by a mudslide.
With the new disasters, more than 300 people have died since Christmas across the southeastern portion Brazil.