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More than 500 dead in Brazil's worst flood disaster

Grief, and a lucky rescue, in Brazil's disaster zone
Teresopolis, Brazil (AFP) Jan 14, 2011 - Tears mingled with rain Friday in the Serrana, the mountainous zone just north of Rio de Janeiro that has become the scene of Brazil's worst-ever natural catastrophe. Days after floodwaters and surging waves of mud killed at least 506 people, grief was palpable in this lush area now scarred red and brown where waterlogged soil had pushed downhill, knocking away anything in its path. But the accounts of loss were leavened Thursday 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." The atmosphere was mournful as the extent of the disaster became apparent in Teresopolis, one mountain town devastated by the mudslides. In a former church and a police station, bodies piled up in makeshift morgues while outside crowds of people desperate to learn the fate of loved ones gathered.

They looked at photos of faces disfigured by the surprise of death or the ravages of decomposition. Many of the bodies were those of children, women and old people -- all physically less apt to survive nature's onslaught. "I can't go inside. I don't have courage to," said one woman, Ana Maria, 40, who was looking for relatives. Nearby, a long line had formed of families waiting to collect bodies of kin, while around them workers wearing masks to shield from the stench staffed the reception and accompanied those identifying the cadavers. "You have no idea how hard it is to see the bodies of so many children... It's horrible," a fireman told AFP.

Suddenly, there was a gasp from three women nearby who had been looking through the wall of photos. They held each other close as they recognized the lifeless face of a relative. Elsewhere in the city, hundreds of people left homeless by the calamity sat around on mattresses in a gymnasium, still in shock, some injured. Volunteers carrying food, clothing and hygiene products were tending to them, amid a growing chaos of bags, baby carriages, toys and pathetic piles of possessions that represented all they had left. A 60-year-old nursing assistant, Sonia Rodrigues, sought help to find her 29-year-old daughter Ana, a welfare worker who disappeared after going to a friend's place to sleep the night the mud came.

"I need to know how she is," Rodrigues wailed. Edmar Da Rosa, a 44-year-old laborer whose face was badly lacerated, looked lost and unable to comprehend the deaths of family members. He said a retaining wall fell on part of his house that he shared with his wife, three children and a grandson. "My wife died. My grandson ended up dying. And the others are hurt," he said. A few meters (feet) away, 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.
by Staff Writers
Teresopolis, Brazil (AFP) Jan 14, 2011
Brazil is suffering its worst-ever flood 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 killed in a 1967 mudslide tragedy that had been previously considered Brazil's biggest disaster.

More bodies were expected to turn up as rescuers finally reached villages cut off because of destroyed roads and bridges in the region.

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

Frantic efforts to locate survivors and bodies 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 early Wednesday dumped the equivalent of a month's rain in just a few hours before dawn, 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 all 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 Teresopolis, a mountain town devastated by the mudslides.

Bodies piled up in makeshift 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, either because their house was 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.

earlier related report
Over 400 dead in Brazil's worst disaster in decades
Teresopolis, Brazil (AFP) Jan 13, 2011 - Scenes of horror unfolded near Rio Thursday, after torrents of mud and water swept down crowded hillsides killing more than 430 people in Brazil's worst natural disaster in decades.

Walls of thick, muddy gunge cascaded past apartment blocks in several towns, flowing into single-story homes and overturning cars as they surged down the hills sweeping along everything in their path.

"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."

Freakish storms early Wednesday in the mountainous area just north of Rio de Janeiro dumped the equivalent of a month's rain in just a few hours, sending mudslides slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.

At least 432 people have died, according to local officials and media in the worst affected towns of Novo Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis.

President Dilma Rousseff, clad in black rubber boots, walked the mud-covered cobblestone streets of Novo Friburgo, where 201 deaths were recorded, took a helicopter tour of the disaster zone and pledged "strong action" by the government.

The death toll was expected to rise further as rescuers arrived in remote hamlets, many cut off to all but helicopter access.

"One woman tried to save her children, but her two-month-old baby was carried away by a torrent like a doll," sobbed Angela, a 55-year-old resident of Teresopolis.

Tropical rains, common at this time of year, intensified as a cold front moved in, unleashing the tragedy before dawn, while families slept.

"In eight hours... it rained as much as for the entire month," said Paulo Canedo, a hydrologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

The deluge "caused avalanches of rocks and soil that carried everything down with them, picking up houses," he said.

As weather forecasters warned of more rain in the hours and days ahead, rescuers aided by desperate residents clawed through rubble and mud looking for survivors or bodies.

GloboNews television said 175 people had died in Teresopolis, while officials in Petropolis counted 39 dead.

Another 17 bodies were discovered Thursday in a village called Sumidouro.

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.

But among the despair, were a few triumphs.

Firemen managed to save a six-month-old baby and the 25-year-old father who had been buried in mud in each others' arms. The father, Wellington, told the G1 news website that his wife and his mother-in-law died when mud swamped their home.

The scenes of crumbled towns and the stench of death, though, transformed the Serrana region, a popular historical getaway for wealthy Rio residents seeking cooler temperatures.

The disaster also provided the first big test for Rousseff, who only took power on January 1.

Her government has released 470 million dollars in initial emergency aid and sent seven tons of medical supplies.

But her failure to make any public statement or emotional display immediately following the catastrophe contrasted with the style of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who cultivated a gruff and gregarious father image in public.

The last major natural disaster in Brazil was in March 1967, when mudslides killed 300 people in a coastal town called Caraguatatuba, Brazilian media said.

By way of comparison, Brazil recorded 473 deaths for all of last year from heavy rains.




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SHAKE AND BLOW
Brazil floods, mudslides leave over 250 dead
Teresopolis, Brazil (AFP) Jan 12, 2011
Days of flooding and mudslides have left as many as 250 people dead in southeast Brazil, with a mountainous region near Rio de Janeiro bearing the brunt Wednesday. At least 237 people were reported to have died in the Serrana mountain region north of Rio Tuesday and Wednesday after extremely heavy tropical rain sent hillsides sliding into towns and rivers broke their banks. "I've only ev ... read more

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