TERESOPOLIS, Brazil – The power was out, but lightning flashes illuminated the horror as villagers watched neighbors’ homes vanish under a wall of mud and water, turning neighborhoods into graveyards. Survivors dug at the earth barehanded Thursday, but all they found were bodies.
It was a scene of muddy destruction in mountain towns north of Rio, where at least 476 people were killed when torrential rains unleashed mudslides in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, burying people alive as they slept. Officials would not venture guesses on how many people were missing – but fears were high that the death toll could sharply rise.
In the remote Campo Grande neighborhood of Teresopolis, now accessible only by a perilous five-mile hike through mud-slicked jungle, family members pulled the lifeless bodies of loved ones from the muck. They carefully laid the corpses on dry ground, covering them with blankets.
A young boy cried out as his father’s body was found: “I want to see my dad! I want to see my dad!”
Flooding and mudslides are common in Brazil when the summer rains come, but this week’s slides were among the worst in recent memory. The disasters unduly punish the poor, who often live in rickety shacks perched perilously on steep hillsides with little or no foundations. But even the rich did not escape the damage in Teresopolis, where large homes were washed away.
“I have friends still lost in all of this mud,” said Carlos Eurico, a resident of the city’s Campo Grande neighborhood, as he motioned to a sea of destruction behind him. “It’s all gone. It’s all over now. We’re putting ourselves in the hands of God.”
In the same area, Nilson Martins, 35, carefully held the only thing pulled out alive since dawn: a pet rabbit that had somehow remained pristinely white despite the mud.
“We’re just digging around, there is no way of knowing where to look,” he said. “There are three more bodies under the rubble over there. One seems to be a girl, no more than 16, dead, buried under that mud.”
The hundreds of homes washed away in the neighborhood were turned inside out, their plumbing and electrical wires exposed. Children’s clothes littered the earth, cars were tossed upside down into thickets. An eerie quiet prevailed as people searched for life. The sounds of digging, with sticks and hands, were occasionally punctuated by shouts as another corpse was located.
Conceicao Salomao, a doctor coordinating relief efforts at a makeshift refuge inside a gymnasium in central Teresopolis, said about 750 people were staying there Thursday and about 1,000 people had sought treatment in the past day. One danger she worried about was leptospirosis, a waterborne bacterial disease.
“The hospitals around here are overflowing. The army and navy are setting up field hospitals to help,” she said.
“The worst is the feeling of impotence. We do what we can, but there are so many people.”
Rio state’s Civil Defense department said on its website that 222 people were killed in Teresopolis, 214 in nearby Nova Friburgo and 40 in neighboring Petropolis. It said about 14,000 people had been driven from their homes.
Another 37 people have died in floods and mudslides since Christmas in other parts of southeastern Brazil – 16 in Minas Gerais state north of Rio and 21 in Sao Paulo state.