Torrential rain claims lives of 55 in Brazil tourist town


At least 55 people were killed in devastating flash floods and landslides that hit the picturesque Brazil-ian city of Petropolis, turning streets into torrential rivers and sweeping away houses, officials said Thursday.

Rescue workers raced to find survivors buried in the mud and wreckage after heavy storms Tuesday dumped a month’s worth of rain in three hours on the scenic tourist town in the hills north of Rio de Janeiro.

There were fears the death toll could rise further as firefighters and volunteer rescue workers dug through the remains of houses washed away in tor-rents of mud, many of them in impoverished hillside slums.

At least 21 people have been so far been rescued alive in the effort, according to the state govern-ment.

Around 300 people were being housed in shel-ters, mostly in schools, officials said. Charities called for donations of mattresses, blankets, food, water, clothing and face masks for victims.

Wendel Pio Lourenco, a 24-year-old resident, was walking through the street with a television in his arms, heading to a local church in search of shel-ter.

He said he was trying to save a few possessions, after spending a sleepless night helping search for victims.

“I found a girl who was buried alive,” he said. “Everyone is saying it looks like a war zone.”

Governor Claudio Castro said much the same after visiting the scene.

“It’s almost a war situation. We’ve mobilised our entire team,” he said. Videos posted on social media from Tuesday’s rains showed streets in Petropolis, the 19th-century summer capital of the Brazilian empire, filled with gushing floods that swept away cars, trees and nearly everything else in their paths.

Many shops were completely inundated by the rising waters, which gushed down the streets of the historic city centre. Officials said more than 180 firefighters and other rescue workers were responding to the emer-gency, aided by 400 soldiers sent in as reinforce-ments.

City hall declared a “state of disaster” in the city of 300,000 people, which sits 68 kilometres (42 miles) north of Rio.

The city council declared three days of mourn-ing for victims. Petropolis is a popular destination for tourists fleeing the summer heat of Rio, known for its leafy streets, stately homes, imperial palace — today a museum — and the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains.

Tuesday’s storms dumped 258 millimetres (10 inches) of rain on the city in three hours, nearly equal to all the rainfall from the previous month, the mayor’s office said.

The heaviest downpour had passed, but more moderate rain was expected to continue on and off for several days, authorities said.

President Jair Bolsonaro, on an official trip to Russia, said on Twitter he was keeping abreast of “the tragedy.”

“Thank you for your words of solidarity with the people of Petropolis,” he told President Vladimir Putin after meeting the Russian leader.

“May God comfort (the victims’) families.” Bra-zil has been swept by heavy rains in the past several months that have caused a series of deadly floods and landslides.

Experts say rainy season downpours are being augmented by La Nina — the cyclical cooling of the Pacific Ocean — and by the impact of climate change. Because a warmer atmosphere holds more wa-ter, global warming increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.

Last month, torrential rain triggered floods and landslides that killed at least 28 people in southeast-ern Brazil, mostly in Sao Paulo state.

There have also been heavy rains in the north-eastern state of Bahia, where 24 people died in De-cember. It is not the first time the mountains around Rio have been the scene of deadly storms.

In January 2011, more than 900 people died in the region due to heavy rains that caused flooding and landslides in a large area, including Petropolis and neighbouring cities Nova Friburgo and Tereso-polis.—AFP



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