- Associated Press - Thursday, January 13, 2011

TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (AP) — Walls of earth and water swept away homes in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, wiping out families and leaving survivors scrambling Thursday to reach still-trapped neighbors.

At least 350 people died in three towns after the slides hit at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, and 50 or more were still missing, according to officials and reliable local news reports.

“We were like zombies, covered in mud, in the dark, digging and digging,” Geisa Carvalho, 19, said.

A tremendous rumble awoke Ms. Geisa and her mother, Vania Ramos, as tons of earth slid down a sheer granite rock face onto their neighborhood. The power was out, but by lightning flashes they could see a torrent of mud and water rushing just a few feet from their home — and the remnants of their neighbors’ houses that were swept far down a hill.

“I don’t even have the words to describe what I’ve seen,” said Ms. Ramos during a five-mile hike to the main part of her town in search of food and water. “A lot of our friends are dead or missing. There are people we may never find.”

Ms. Carvalho and Ms. Ramos said they ran out of their home moments after the mudslide and joined neighbors in digging for survivors with bare hands and sticks. They quickly located a family of four who had died under the rubble of their home, and said another neighbor’s 2-month-old baby was washed away in his crib and has yet to be found.

Nearly all the homes in their Caleme neighborhood were swept to the bottom of a hill, seemingly turned inside out. Tangles of plumbing were wrapped in trees, children’s clothing littered the earth, and massive trees were tossed about like toothpicks. A river of water and mud flowed through the streets as a light rain continued to fall Thursday.

Only a few rescuers had managed to hike to Caleme by Thursday, and they had only shovels and machetes, not the heavier equipment that may be needed to hunt for survivors. Residents said they had no food, water or medication, and many made the long walk for help to the center of Teresopolis, about 40 miles north of Rio.

Such disasters hit Brazil annually in its rainy summer season and unduly punish the poor, who often live in rickety shacks perched perilously on steep hillsides with little or no foundations.

Rio state’s civil defense department reported that 152 people were killed in Teresopolis and 36 in neighboring Petropolis. The Globo TV network, citing the mayor’s office of Nova Friburgo, said 168 people were killed in that town. The civil defense department earlier said 107 were dead there; officials were not immediately available to confirm the new figure.

Morgues in the cities were full, and bodies covered in blankets were laid out in streets.

Officials said the area hit by slides had seen 10 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. More rain, possibly heavy at times, is forecast through the weekend.

Survivors across the region were seen wading through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, as they tried to reach higher ground. Many tried desperately to find relatives, though phone service was out in the region and many people were still missing hours after the rain stopped.

“There are so many disappeared — and so many that will probably never be found,” said Angela Marina de Carvalho Silva, a resident of Teresopolis who feared she may have lost 15 relatives, including five nieces and nephews.

“There was nothing we could do. It was hell,” she said in a telephone interview.

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