At least 117 people have died from flooding and mudslides in Petropolis after more than a month of rain fell on Tuesday.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has likened the Brazilian city of Petropolis to a war zone after landslides and floods killed at least 117 people and hundreds of rescuers were still searching through the debris.
“I saw intense destruction. It almost felt like a war,” Bolsonaro said after flying over the disaster in the city in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro that was hit by torrential rains.
With many people still missing on Friday, officials said the death toll is expected to rise further as the region reels from the heaviest rains in nearly a century.
“I am here in the hope of reuniting with my wife. I’m sure she’s here. The downstairs neighbor said she was on the balcony when the mudslide happened,” local resident Marcelo Barbosa said.
Rio de Janeiro Civil Defense chief Leandro Monteiro is among more than 500 rescuers, as well as neighbors and relatives of the victims who are still searching for survivors.
“I’ve lived here for 44 years and I’ve never seen anything like it… All my friends are gone, they’re all dead, they’re all buried,” said resident Maria Jose Dante de Araujo.
Bolsonaro has pledged federal aid to help people and begin to rebuild the region.
The development comes at a critical time for Bolsonaro, who is expected to run for office in October. He recently suffered from his lowest approval rating since taking office in January 2019 – in part due to his response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has claimed more than 600,000 lives in Brazil, the second highest in the world.
That leaves him in a vulnerable position ahead of his likely re-election, where he is set to face former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who early opinion polls show holds a sizable lead.
Meanwhile, more than 700 people have had to leave their homes and take refuge in local schools and other makeshift accommodation. Rio Governor Claudio Castro on Wednesday compared the affected area to a war zone.
The local morgue was forced to use a refrigerated truck as a backup as more victims were brought in while other bodies still awaited identification by their families.
The downpours, which exceeded the average for the whole of February on Tuesday, caused mudslides that flooded streets, destroyed houses, swept away cars and buses and left gashes hundreds of meters wide on the sides of the mountains in the region.
It was the heaviest rainfall recorded since 1932 in Petropolis, a tourist destination in the hills of Rio de Janeiro state, popularly known as the “Imperial City” because it was the summer getaway of the Brazilian royalty in the 19th century.
“I don’t even have words. I am devastated. We are all devastated for what we have lost, for our neighbors, for our friends, for our homes. And we are still alive, what about those who left,” resident Luci Vieira dos Santos asked.