Despair, solidarity for Brazil storm victims

The storms triggered flash floods and torrents of mud that gushed violently through the city of Petropolis. PHOTO: REUTERS

PETROPOLIS, BRAZIL (AFP) - Holding the few possessions they are able to carry, families stream down the slopes of the hillside neighbourhood of Alto da Serra, many in tears, fleeing the devastation left by deadly landslides in the Brazilian city of Petropolis.

Their modest neighbourhood was one of the hardest hit by Tuesday's (Feb 15) storms, which dumped a month's worth of rain on this scenic tourist town in a matter of hours, triggering flash floods and torrents of mud that gushed violently through the city.

"It's devastating. We never could have imagined something like this," says one fleeing resident, Ms Elisabeth Lourenco, clutching two bags in which she stuffed some clothing when emergency officials ordered everyone in the neighbourhood to evacuate.

"When the rain was falling hardest, a huge amount of mud came pouring down the hillside, and some tree branches fell on my house," says the 32-year-old manicurist, on the verge of tears.

Nearby is a scene of total chaos. A giant swathe of hillside is covered in mud and strewn with the remains of shattered houses.

Authorities say the disaster killed at least 104 people across the city.

There are fears the death toll, which rose steadily on Wednesday, could climb further still as rescue workers continue digging through the mud and ruins.

Watching the rescue operation in disbelief, residents shudder with each deafening pass of the helicopters hovering overhead.

"I was eating dinner when the storm started. My brother came in and said, 'We need to get out of here, the hillside is collapsing,'" says Mr Jeronimo Leonardo, 47, whose home sits at the edge of the area wiped out by the landslide.

'Up to our waists'

Residents of Alto da Serra have been evacuated to a church that sits atop another hill nearby.

From the square outside the small blue building, they can see the disaster zone through the mist.

Dozens of families swarm the church, carting their belongings in bags.

Outside, volunteers unload a truck of bottled water, as others sort through donated clothing.

"Can I have some shoes?" asks a little boy standing barefoot, his clothes stained with mud.

Inside, mattresses line the floor.

"We started taking people in as soon as the tragedy started on Tuesday evening. We're hosting around 150 to 200 people, including a lot of children," says Father Celestino, a parish priest.

Rescue workers and residents look for survivors after a mudslide in Petropolis on Feb 16, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Tuesday's (Feb 15) storms dumped a month's worth of rain on the scenic tourist town in a matter of hours. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ms Yasmin Kennia Narciso, a 26-year-old teacher's assistant, is sitting on a mattress nursing her nine-month-old baby.

"I didn't sleep all night," she says.

She tells the story of how she fled with her two daughters around 11pm.

"We tried to leave earlier, but there were boulders strewn across the path and everything was flooded. We were in water up to our waists. We had no choice but to wait until it went down," she says.

She adds that she is still waiting for news on several neighbours.

"An older lady and her three grandchildren who lived just above us were buried in the mud."

Survivors know they likely face a long wait to learn if and when they can return home - for those who still have homes left.

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