Survivors of mudslides in mountain towns north of Rio recounted today the horrors of watching homes swept away by walls of earth and water and of frantic efforts to dig with bare hands and reach trapped neighbours.
Officials and a television report indicated the death toll in the slides climbed above 350, with at least 50 people still missing.
"We were like zombies, covered in mud, in the dark, digging and digging," said Geisa Carvalho, 19, about the minutes after slides hit on Wednesday around 3am in Teresopolis.
Her mother, Vania Ramos, described how she and Geisa awoke to a tremendous rumble as tons of earth above their neighbourhood slid down a sheer granite rock face. The power was out, but by lightning flashes they could see a torrent of mud and water rushing just metres from their home — and the remnants of their neighbours' houses that were swept far down a hill.
"I don't even have the words to describe what I've seen," said Ramos, as she was started on a five-mile hike to the main part of her town, hoping to find food and water. "A lot of our friends are dead or missing. There are people we may never find."
Carvalho and Ramos said they ran out of their home moments after the mudslide and joined neighbours in their Caleme neighbourhood as they dug with bare hands and sticks in efforts to find neighbours. They quickly located a family of four buried under the rubble of their home — and said another neighbour's 2-month-old baby was washed away in his crib and has yet to be found.
Nearly all the homes in their neighbourhood were swept to the bottom of a hill and turned inside out. Tangles of plumbing were wrapped in trees, children's' clothing littered the earth, massive trees were tossed about like toothpicks. A river of water and mud flowed through the streets as a light rain continued to fall.
Only a few rescuers had managed by today to hike to their neighbourhood and they only had shovels and machetes to help them look for survivors. Residents said they had no food, water or medication, and many made the long walk to the main area of Teresopolis to get help.
Torrential rains that have hit Rio state since the weekend caused widespread and massive mudslides early on Wednesday. Officials and a television report said 356 people were killed in Teresopolis and two other mountain towns, 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.
According to the Rio state's Civil Defence department, 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 Defence department earlier said 107 were dead there; the new figure could not immediately be confirmed.
Morgues in the city's were full and bodies covered in blankets were laid out in streets.
Officials said the area hit by slides had seen 26 centimetres of rain fall 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, trying 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.
Carvalho Silva took refuge in a neighbour's house on high ground with her husband and daughter, and watched the torrential rain carry away cars, tree branches and animals and rip apart the homes of friends and family.
"It's over. There's nothing. The water came down and swept everything away," said her husband, Sidney Silva.
President Dilma Rousseff flew by helicopter over the region today. The nation's Health Ministry said it was sending seven tonnes of medications to the area, enough to treat 45,000 people for a month, it said in a statement.
The mayor of Teresopolis, Jorge Mario Sedlacek, 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 defence department and firefighters were digging for survivors, but hopes were dimming.
Deadly flooding and slides hit neighboring states in recent days as well.
Heavy rainfall caused havoc in Minas Gerais state north of Rio, where 16 people died in the past month and dozens 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.