Rio de Janeiro state’s government confirmed 104 deaths from floods and mudslides that swept away homes and cars in Petropolis city. But even as families prepared to bury their dead, it was unclear Thursday how many bodies are still trapped under the mud.
Rubens Bomtempo, mayor of the German-influenced city nestled in the mountains, didn’t offer an estimate for the number of people missing, with search and rescue operations still ongoing.
"We don’t yet know the full scale of this,” Bomtempo said at a news conference Wednesday. "It was a hard day, a difficult day.”
More than 24 hours after the deadly deluge early Tuesday, survivors were digging to find their lost loved ones. Rio de Janeiro’s public prosecutors’ office said in a statement Wednesday night that it had compiled a list of 35 people yet to be found.
Footage posted on social media showed torrents dragging cars and houses through the streets and water swirling through the city. One video showed two buses sinking into a swollen river as passengers clambered out the windows, scrambling for safety. Some didn’t make it to the banks and were washed away, out of sight.
On Wednesday morning, houses were buried beneath mud while appliances and cars were piling on the streets.
Petropolis, named for a former Brazilian emperor, has been a refuge for people escaping the summer heat and tourists keen to explore the so-called "Imperial City."
Its prosperity has also drawn economically weaker residents from Rio’s poor regions. Its population grew haphazardly, climbing mountainsides now covered with small residences packed tightly together. Many houses are built in structurally dangerous areas, prone to natural disasters due to deforestation and inadequate drainage.
The state fire department said 25.8 centimeters (just over 10 inches) of rainfall was recorded within three hours on Tuesday – almost as much as during the previous 30 days combined. Rio de Janeiro’s Gov. Claudio Castro said in a press conference that the rains were the worst Petropolis has received since 1932.
"No one could predict rain as hard as this," Castro said. According to weather forecasters, more rain is expected through the rest of the week.
Castro added that almost 400 people were left homeless and 24 were rescued alive. "They were fortunate, and they were few."
"I could only hear my brother yelling, ‘Help! Help! My God!‘” resident Rosilene Virginia told The Associated Press (AP) as a man comforted her. "It’s very sad to see people asking for help and having no way of helping, no way of doing anything. It’s desperate, a feeling of loss so great.”
The stricken mountain region has seen similar catastrophes in recent decades, including one that caused more than 900 deaths. In the years since Petropolis presented a plan to reduce risks of landslides, but works have been advancing only slowly. The plan, presented in 2017, was based on analysis determining that 18% of the city’s territory was at high risk for landslides and flooding.
Local authorities say more than 180 residents who live in at-risk areas are sheltering in schools. More equipment and manpower are expected to help rescue efforts on Thursday.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro expressed solidarity while on a trip to Russia. Petropolis’ city hall declared three days of mourning for the tragedy.
Since the start of the year, southeastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains, with more than 40 deaths recorded between incidents in Minas Gerais state in early January and Sao Paulo state later the same month.
Residents of Alto da Serra have been evacuated to a church that sits atop another hill nearby. From the square outside the small blue building, they can see the disaster zone through the mist. Dozens of families swarm the church, carting their belongings in bags. Outside, volunteers unload a truck of bottled water, as others sort through donated clothing.
"Can I have some shoes?" asks a little boy standing barefoot, his clothes stained with mud. Inside, mattresses line the floor.
"We started taking people in as soon as the tragedy started Tuesday evening. We're hosting around 150 to 200 people, including a lot of children," says Father Celestino, a parish priest.
Yasmin Kennia Narciso, a 26-year-old teacher's assistant, is sitting on a mattress nursing her 9-month-old baby.
"I didn't sleep all night," she says.
She tells the story of how she fled with her two daughters around 11 p.m. local time.
"We tried to leave earlier, but there were boulders strewn across the path and everything was flooded. We were in waist-deep water. We had no choice but to wait until it went down," she says.
She adds that she is still waiting for news about several neighbors.
"An older lady and her three grandchildren who lived just above us were buried in the mud."
Survivors know they likely face a long wait to learn if and when they can return home – for those who still have homes left.