Ahead of more heavy rain, residents of several neighborhoods in the devastated Brazilian city of Petropolis were called for evacuation Thursday, just two days after 117 people were killed in floods and landslides.
Sirens warned neighborhoods in the hillside tourist town to leave, while residents were still shocked by rivers of mud that buried homes and swept away cars and trees. At least two streets have already been closed after landslides containing “blocks of rock”.
The new downpour comes with dozens still missing in the city, located 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Rio de Janeiro, and the first funerals for the identified victims took place.
The local civil defense said text messages were warning residents not to take refuge in relatives’ homes or in public shelters “due to the amount of rain affecting the city, which will continue, with strength ranging from moderate to severe, over the next few hours”. .
“I get scared when I see it’s raining again, because the ground is still soaked,” said Rodney Montesso, 45, a resident of Petropolis, whose home was not in danger of the recent rain. “I think of families who live in neighborhoods where a lot of people have already died and I feel hopeless.”
Amid fears the death toll could rise, firefighters and volunteers scrambled through the rubble of homes Thursday – many from poor slums.
As rescue helicopters hovered overhead, residents exchanged stories about loved ones or neighbors who had swept the place away.
“Unfortunately, it will be difficult to find survivors,” Luciano Goncalves, a 26-year-old volunteer, told AFP.
“Given the situation, this is practically impossible. But we must do everything we can to be able to return the bodies to the families. We have to be very careful because there are still areas at risk of new landslides,” he added.
‘A scene from a war’ 24 people have been rescued, while the number of missing is ambiguous because many bodies have not yet been identified. Globo TV reported the number of missing at 41.
So far, 850 displaced people have been transferred to temporary shelters, the vast majority of whom are in public schools.
About 500 firefighters participated in the rescue, assisted by hundreds of volunteers, dogs, bulldozers and dozens of aircraft.
The rains were the latest in a string of deadly storms – which experts say have been exacerbated by climate change – to hit Brazil in the past three months.
Charities have called for donations of mattresses, food, water, clothing and face masks.
Rio de Janeiro state governor Claudio Castro said the streets of Petropolis resembled “a scene from a war,” adding that this was the heaviest rain to hit the area since 1932.
Castro said the “historical tragedy” was exacerbated by the “deficits” in urban planning and housing infrastructure.
Meteorologist Estelle Sias said the effects of uncontrolled urbanization hit the poor the most when the disaster struck.
“Those who live in these high-risk areas are the most vulnerable,” he said.
The city council declared a state of disaster and three days of mourning.
‘Tragedy’ Petropolis – the summer capital of the Brazilian Empire in the 19th century – is a popular destination for tourists fleeing the heat of Rio.
It is famous for its leafy streets, stately homes, Imperial Palace – today’s museum – and the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains.
The government announced that President Jair Bolsonaro, on an official trip to Russia and Hungary, will head to Petropolis after returning Friday to inspect the damage.
Experts say the rainy season’s heavy rainfall is increased by La Nina – the periodic cooling of the Pacific Ocean – and by climate change.
As a warmer atmosphere contains more water, global warming increases the risk and severity of floods from heavy rainfall.
Heavy rains last month caused floods and landslides that killed at least 28 people in southeastern Brazil, mainly in the state of São Paulo.
Heavy rain also fell in the northeastern state of Bahia, where 24 people died in December.
Petropolis and the surrounding area were previously hit by severe storms in January 2011, when more than 900 people died in floods and landslides.