Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Monday toured a resort region turned disaster zone where torrential rains killed at least 40 people just as the country’s famed carnival celebrations were held, with dozens remaining missing.
Rescue workers were racing to find any survivors buried under the mud and rubble after 24 hours of record rain over the weekend triggered violent floods and landslides that devastated the area around the popular beach city of Sao Sebastiao, around 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Sao Paulo.
As emergency crews slowly cleared roads of boulders and mud that had cut off access to the region, residents told journalists harrowing stories of losing almost everything to the crush of earth and floodwater Sunday at dawn.
“We heard this terrifying noise of trees falling and glass breaking. The water swept right through the bathroom window — it just exploded,” Vanesa Cristina Caetano told AFP in the beachside neighborhood of Juquehy, in Sao Sebastiao.
“We heard the water rushing down, along with lots of trees and rocks. It nearly swept the house away. We ended up with water up to my shoulders,” said the 41-year-old domestic worker, who managed to escape with her husband and two children.
Some told how whole families had dug frantically through the debris to rescue trapped relatives, while others told of losing their homes and all the inside.
“I’m so disoriented I don’t even know what to do. I lost everything,” said Patricia da Silva, a 31-year-old domestic worker.
“Everything was buried. We couldn’t save anything…. I’m just happy I managed to get out with my kids,” aged nine and 15, she said.
– Impoverished favelas –
Lula vowed the federal government’s support for reconstruction efforts, and issued an appeal to stop building on low-lying areas and hillsides vulnerable to such disasters, which are frequent in Brazil.
“It’s important for people not to build more houses in places that could fall victim to more rains and landslides that claim yet more lives,” said the 77-year-old leftist leader, who took office for a third term last month.
An estimated 9.5 million of Brazil’s 215 million people live in areas at high risk of flooding or landslides — often impoverished favelas.
Lula made the comments in a news conference in Sao Sebastiao, a city of about 90,000 people, after flying over the area, where aerial images showed brown flood waters engulfing houses just inland from the emerald waters of the region’s pristine coastline.
The Sao Paulo state government said the death toll stood at 40, with 39 people killed in Sao Sebastiao, and a girl killed in the city of Ubatuba, just up the coast. But there are fears the toll will rise.
“Around 40 people have still not been located,” Sao Paulo rescue department official Michelle Cesar told CNN Brasil.
Amid the loss and destruction, authorities said a boy aged two was rescued from a sea of mud, as was a woman who was giving birth.
More than 1,700 people were evacuated, while 766 lost their homes, authorities said.
– Holiday tragedy –
The disaster struck just as Brazil celebrated carnival weekend, which draws large numbers of tourists to Sao Sebastiao and the surrounding area.
Authorities said record rains had dumped 600 millimeters (nearly 24 inches) of water on Sao Sebastiao in 24 hours, more than double the usual amount for the entire month of February.
Around 500 emergency workers, soldiers and police were working on the rescue effort, deploying helicopters, planes and heavy machinery, the state government said.
Governor Tarcisio de Freitas, who met with Lula at the scene, declared a state of emergency in five towns along the coast, and released the equivalent of $1.5 million for rescue operations.
Carnival events in Sao Sebastiao and other towns in the area were canceled.
The national weather institute issued an alert for more heavy rain in the region Monday.
Brazil has been hit by a series of weather-related disasters in recent years that experts say are likely being made worse by climate change.
The latest tragedy came almost exactly a year after torrential rains and landslides in the southeastern city of Petropolis killed more than 230 people.