Rescue workers using heavy machinery dug for bodies and survivors on Thursday after a torrent of mud dislodged by heavy rain ravaged a hillside slum near Rio de Janeiro, burying dozens of residents.
The worst rains in 40 years, which started on Monday, triggered close to 200 mudslides that pulverized shacks in hillside communities, killing at least 180 people and leaving thousands homeless in and around Brazil’s second-biggest city.
Search teams pulled out 12 bodies and rescued 21 people from the wreckage of houses swept away by the large slide late on Wednesday that buried about 50 houses in the Bumba Hill slum in the city of Niteroi, across a bay from Rio.
Marlene Pineiro said she and her family heard a loud noise as the earth began moving under her house and managed to jump out of a window before it collapsed.
“We ran and everything starting coming down … the kitchen, my brothers’ room, the living room,” she said. “But in the other room it stopped, so when that happened we opened the window … we jumped into the woods and ran away.”
The mudslide wiped out all traces of the houses, churches and stores in its path, leaving rubble and a swath of black earth amid the surrounding tropical forest.
Soil was piled as high as a two-story building at the bottom of the hill. The hillside had previously been a garbage dump, making the neighborhood more vulnerable to collapse and underlining the precarious living conditions of more than a million slum dwellers in the Rio area.
Rescuers said the chances of finding more survivors was slim because of the lack of air pockets in the mud.
“This has been total chaos for the last three days. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said helicopter pilot Marcos Goncalves Maia.
Several local media outlets said 200 people were buried beneath the mudslide, some citing Rio’s civil defense agency.
The deputy governor of Rio state, Luiz Fernando Pezao, said about 200 people lived in Bumba Hill but there was no way to know how many were there when the landslide occurred.
“I don’t know what to do, I want to help but I don’t even know where to start. My cousins are buried in there, the agony is enormous,” said Gisele Pimenta, 30, a Bumba Hill resident, in an interview with Brazilian news network Globo.
Brazil’s federal government has sent troops to help rescue efforts and announced on Thursday an emergency fund of $113-million to help Rio state cope with the disaster, which paralyzed the city on Tuesday as roads flooded.
Authorities say 24 000 people have been left without shelter and that thousands of houses are still at risk.
The chaos caused by the rains has renewed attention on Rio’s poor infrastructure and chaotic slum constructions as it prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016.
“This isn’t the time to question why these constructions were allowed, it is the time for solidarity,” Rio Governor Sergio Cabral said as he inspected the disaster zone.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said the city would give top priority to finding those still trapped under mud and rubble, Globo reported, even if it meant diverting resources from fixing roads and improving transit in the city.
Niteroi was the worst affected area with at least 105 people dead, the fire department said, while 57 were killed in Rio.
For a third day, Paes urged Rio residents to stay home or at least avoid traveling to the city center as weather forecasts called for rains to continue until the weekend.
Traffic was flowing normally in most parts of the city on Thursday in contrast to two days earlier when the rains turned highways into lakes, left drivers stranded in cars and forced some commuters to walk home through miles of soaked streets. — Reuters