500 dead in Brazil's worst flood disaster
AFP, Friday 14 Jan 2011
Brazil's mudslides claimed the lives of 500 people

Brazil is suffering its worst-ever natural disaster after mudslides near Rio de Janeiro this week killed more than 500 people, media compiling the deaths said Friday.

Municipal officials in the Serrana region just north of Rio said at least 506 people were killed, surpassing the 437 toll from a 1967 mudslide that had been previously considered Brazil's biggest disaster.

More bodies were expected to turn up as rescuers finally reached villages cut off by destroyed roads and bridges.

The G1 news outlet called it "the biggest climatic tragedy in the history of the country."

In frantic efforts to locate survivors and bodies, rescuers braved the risk of further mudslides, as rain continued to fall on the waterlogged region, making it even more unstable.

"It's very overwhelming. The scenes are very shocking," President Dilma Rousseff said after visiting the area Thursday.

She pledged "strong action" by her government, which has already released 470 million dollars in initial emergency aid and sent seven tonnes of medical supplies.

The catastrophe was seen as her first big test since taking power two weeks ago, replacing her popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Storms dumped the equivalent of a month's rain in just a few hours before dawn Wednesday, sending mudslides slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.

The worst affected towns were Novo Friburgo, which recorded 225 deaths, Teresopolis, with 223 deaths, and Petropolis, with 39 deaths, according to municipal officials. Another 19 fatalities were registered in the village of Sumidouro.

The death toll from this single disaster exceeded the 473 rain-related deaths recorded for all of Brazil over the whole of of last year.

Churches and police stations were turned into makeshift morgues, the smell of decomposing corpses heavy in the warm air. Thousands of survivors took refuge in shelters.

The atmosphere was mournful as the extent of the disaster became apparent in the devastated mountain two of Teresopolis.

Bodies piled up in the temporary morgues while crowds of people desperate to learn the fate of loved ones gathered outside.

They scrutinized photos of faces disfigured by the surprise of death or the ravages of decomposition in an attempt to identify the missing. Many of the bodies were those of children, women and old people -- all physically less apt to survive nature's onslaught.

A fireman described the gut-wrenching ordeal.

"You have no idea how hard it is to see the bodies of so many children... It's horrible," he told AFP.

Elsewhere in the city, hundreds of people left homeless by the calamity sat around on mattresses in a gymnasium, still in shock. Some were injured.

One, 59-year-old Joao de Lima, clutched a doll with desolation written on his face.

"I lost my four daughters and everything I had," he said softly.

Around 12,000 people were left homeless, because their houses were destroyed or deemed too unsafe.

Tourism, the Serrana's main source of revenue, was also devastated. Hotels said they were losing millions of dollars as visitors, most of them Rio residents, stayed away.

"It was like a bomb full of mud was dropped on a tourist resort," one local in Novo Friburgo, artistic director Arnaldo Miranda, told the Jornal do Brasil daily. "The city's economy is ruined," he said.

But the accounts of loss were leavened by a high-drama rescue.

"I thought I was going to die," said Ilair Pereira de Souza, a 53-year-old woman who had a miraculous escape when neighbors on a nearby balcony threw her a rope.

"Help me, help me," she pleaded, in scenes replayed throughout the day on Brazilian television.

She grabbed for the rope, and disappeared underneath the muddy waters, before reappearing, clinging to the slim lifeline, but without her dog Beethoven, which she had been clutching in her arms.

"If I had tried to save him, I would have died. The poor thing. He stayed for a moment looking me in the eyes, and then he was swept away."