PETROPOLIS, BRAZIL (AFP/REUTERS) – At least 94 people were killed in devastating flash floods and landslides that hit the picturesque Brazilian city of Petropolis, turning streets into torrential rivers and sweeping away houses, officials said on Wednesday (Feb 16).
Rescue workers raced to find survivors buried in the mud and wreckage after heavy storms on Tuesday dumped a month’s worth of rain in three hours on the scenic tourist town in the hills north of Rio de Janeiro.
There were fears the death toll could rise as firefighters and volunteer rescue workers dug through the remains of houses washed away in torrents of mud, many of them in impoverished hillside slums.
At least 21 people have been so far been rescued alive in the effort, according to the state government.
Around 300 people were being housed in shelters, mostly in schools, officials said. Charities called for donations of mattresses, blankets, food, water, clothing and face masks for victims.
Wendel Pio Lourenco, a 24-year-old resident, was walking through the streets with a television in his arms, heading to a local church in search of shelter.
He said he was trying to save a few possessions, after spending a sleepless night helping search for victims.
“I found a girl who was buried alive,” he said.
“Everyone is saying it looks like a war zone.” Governor Claudio Castro said much the same after visiting the scene.
“It’s almost a war situation. We’ve mobilized our entire team,” he said.
Videos posted on social media from Tuesday’s rains showed streets in Petropolis, the 19th-century summer capital of the Brazilian empire, fill with gushing floods that swept away cars, trees and nearly everything else in their paths.
Many shops were completely inundated by the rising waters, which gushed down the streets of the historic city centre.
Officials said more than 180 firefighters and other rescue workers were responding to the emergency, aided by 400 soldiers sent in as reinforcements.
City hall declared a “state of disaster” in the city of 300,000 people, which sits 68km north of Rio.
The city council declared three days of mourning for victims.
Petropolis is a popular destination for tourists fleeing the summer heat of Rio, known for its leafy streets, stately homes, imperial palace – today a museum – and the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains.
Tuesday’s storms dumped 258mm of rain on the city in three hours, nearly equal to all the rainfall from the previous month, the mayor’s office said.
The heaviest downpour had passed, but more moderate rain was expected to continue on and off for several days, authorities said.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who is travelling to Russia, said on Twitter he had asked ministers to help Petropolis and storm victims.
“We intend to already offer to the mayor what we can,” Bolsonaro told reporters in Moscow, adding that he would release federal funds to help “restore traffic in the region".
Brazil has been swept by heavy rains in the past several months that have caused a series of deadly floods and landslides.
Experts say rainy season downpours are being augmented by La Nina – the cyclical cooling of the Pacific Ocean – and by the impact of climate change.
Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, global warming increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.
Last month, torrential rain triggered floods and landslides that killed at least 28 people in southeastern Brazil, mostly in Sao Paulo state.
There have also been heavy rains in the northeastern state of Bahia, where 24 people died in December.
It is not the first time the mountains around Rio have been the scene of deadly storms.
In January 2011, more than 900 people died in the region due to heavy rains that caused flooding and landslides in a large area, including Petropolis and neighbouring cities Nova Friburgo and Teresopolis.