RIO DE JANEIRO – Summer rains sent tons of red mud and torrents of water rushing down mountainsides in towns outside Rio, enveloping homes of rich and poor alike and killing at least 257 people in 24 hours. Some survivors clung to trees to escape the water and landslides.
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 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.
At least 130 people died in Teresopolis, the local Civil Defense agency said. The mountains saw 10 inches of rain fall in less than 24 hours.
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.
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.