- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Torrential summer rains tore through Rio de Janeiro state’s mountains, killing at least 140 people in 24 hours, Brazilian officials said Wednesday. Rescuers using heavy machinery, shovels and bare hands struggled to dig through tons of mud and debris in a search for survivors.

In Teresopolis, 40 miles north of Rio, flash floods tossed cars into trees, and mudslides poured tons of red earth over houses below. At least 114 died, according to a local civil defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to release the information. She added that 10 inches of rain fell on the town in 24 hours.

Survivors waded through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, trying to reach higher ground. Floodwaters continued to flow down the mountains, though rains had stopped.

“I’ve lived here 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Teresopolis citizen Manoel Rocha Sobrinho told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. “I live on high ground, and when I looked below, I only saw a sea of mud. Most people saved themselves by climbing trees.”


With the new disasters, nearly 200 people have died since Christmas across the southeastern portions of the country.

The mayor of Teresopolis decreed a state of emergency, calling the calamity “the worst to hit the town.” About 800 search-and-rescue workers from the state’s civil defense department and firefighters dug for survivors.

“There was no saying what would collapse. Rich people’s homes, poor people’s homes. Everything was destroyed,” 27-year-old Fernanda Carvalho, a house cleaner, told Globo TV.

In neighboring Petropolis, 18 people were confirmed dead by the city’s mayor.

The death toll in the region is expected to rise as firefighters reach remote valleys and steep mountainsides where neighborhoods were destroyed, said Jorge Mario Sedlacek, the mayor of Teresopolis. About 1,000 there were left homeless.

“This is the largest catastrophe in the history of this town,” said Mr. Sedlacek in an interview with Globo TV.

Eight people died in the neighboring mountain town of Nova Friburgo, including four firefighters who were engaged in the rescue effort, according to a statement by Rio de Janeiro state’s civil defense authorities. One fire truck was hit by a landslide, and three firefighters remained missing Wednesday.

An elderly couple died in Petropolis, also in Rio’s Serra dos Orgaos mountains.

Heavy rainfall also caused havoc earlier in Minas Gerais state, where 16 people have died in the past month and scores of communities are in a state of emergency.

In Sao Paulo, flooding paralyzed main thoroughfares in the capital city since Sunday, and 21 people died in collapsed homes, mudslides and flooding throughout the state.

Rio state Gov. Sergio Cabral called on the navy to lend helicopters to firefighters working as rescuers.

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