PETROPOLIS, BRAZIL (AFP) - Rescuers raced against the clock on Thursday (Feb 17) to find survivors among the mud and wreckage caused by devastating flash floods and landslides that killed 104 people in the picturesque Brazilian city of Petropolis.
Streets were turned into torrential rivers of mud burying houses and sweeping away cars, trees and just about everything in their path in the hillside tourist town north of Rio de Janeiro.
With dozens still reported missing and more rain looming, fears that the toll could climb sent firefighters and volunteers scrambling through the remains of houses - many of them in impoverished hillside slums.
As rescue helicopters flew overhead, residents shared stories about loved ones or neighbours swept away.
"Unfortunately, it is going to be difficult to find survivors," Luciano Goncalves, a 26-year-old volunteer, told AFP, completely covered in mud.
"Given the situation, it is practically impossible. But we must do our utmost, to be able to return the bodies to the families. We have to be very careful because there are still areas at risk" of fresh landslides, he added.
Sansao de Santo Domingo, a military policeman aiding the effort, managed to save a small grey dog from the rubble of a house.
"He was scared, he tried to bite me when I arrived. He was defending his territory, because he knew that his masters had been buried below, in the mud," he said.
'Scene from a war'
Some 500 firefighters resumed the search early Thursday after breaking for a few hours due to the instability of the water-soaked soil in the city of 300,000 inhabitants some 60 kilometres north of Rio de Janeiro.
Civil defence authorities have warned of more heavy rains later Thursday, and the government has said there is a high risk of new landslides.
This was the latest in a series of deadly storms - which experts say are made worse by climate change - to hit Brazil in the past three months.
About two dozen people have been rescued alive, but dozens remain missing, possibly more than 130.
About 700 people have been moved to shelters, mainly in schools, officials said.
Charities have called for donations of mattresses, food, water, clothing and face masks.
Governor Claudio Castro of Rio de Janeiro state said the streets of Petropolis resembled "a scene from a war," adding these were the heaviest rains to hit the region since 1932.
The "historic tragedy" was made worse, Castro added, by "deficits" in urban planning and housing infrastructure.
The effects of uncontrolled urban expansion, said meteorologist Estael Sias, hit the poor hardest when disaster strikes.
"Those who live in these regions at risk are the most vulnerable," he said.
"Not to mention that we are experiencing an economic crisis as a result of the pandemic that made everything worse because the number of people who left areas that were not at risk to settle in areas of risk undoubtedly increased," he explained.
City hall declared a "state of disaster and declared three days of mourning.
Petropolis - the 19th-century summer capital of the Brazilian empire - is a popular destination for tourists fleeing the summer heat of Rio.
It is known for its leafy streets, stately homes, imperial palace - today a museum - and the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains.
President Jair Bolsonaro, on an official trip to Russia, said on Twitter he was keeping abreast of the "tragedy."
Experts say rainy season downpours are being augmented by La Nina - the cyclical cooling of the Pacific Ocean - and by climate change.
Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, global warming increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.
Last month, torrential downpours triggered floods and landslides that killed at least 28 people in southeastern Brazil, mainly in Sao Paulo state.
There have also been heavy rains in the northeastern state of Bahia, where 24 people died in December.
Petropolis and the surrounding region were previously hit by severe storms in January 2011, when more than 900 people died in flooding and landslides.