Death toll in Brazil’s Petropolis reaches 104 after rains trigger mudslides

PETROPOLIS, Brazil, Feb 17 (Reuters) – The death toll from mudslides in Brazil’s colonial-era city of Petropolis rose to 104 on Thursday and was expected to increase further as the region reels from the heaviest rains in almost a century this week.

As the rescue effort continued, the local morgue was forced to use a refrigerated truck as a back up as more victims were being brought in while other bodies still awaited to be identified by their families.

“Working overnight, with poor lighting and soggy ground, is always a challenge. But I’m determined to work tirelessly in our search for survivors,” Rio de Janeiro’s civil defense head Leandro Monteiro said.

More than 500 rescue workers, along with neighbors and relatives of the victims, are still searching for possible survivors, the emergency services said.

A preliminary tally suggested at least 35 more people missing. According to officials, at least 13 children are among the dead.

“I’ve been living here for 44 years and never saw anything like that… All my friends are gone, they are all dead, all buried,” local resident Maria Jose Dante de Araujo said.

The downpours, which on Tuesday alone exceeded the average for the entire month of February, caused mudslides that buried homes, flooded streets, washed away cars and buses and left gashes hundreds of yards wide on the region’s mountainsides.

It was the heaviest rainfall registered since 1932 in Petropolis, a tourist destination in the hills of Rio de Janeiro state, popularly known as the “Imperial City” as it was the summer getaway of Brazilian royalty in the 19th century.

More than 420 people had to leave their homes, taking shelter in local schools and other makeshift accommodation. Rio de Janeiro Governor Claudio Castro on Wednesday compared the damage to a war zone.

“I don’t even have words, I’m devastated. We are all devastated for what we have lost, for our neighbors, for our friends, our homes. And we are still alive, what about those who are gone?” said resident Luci Vieira dos Santos.

Thursday morning brought sunshine to the region, but the weather forecast pointed to more rainfall later in the day. Power distribution has yet to be fully restored in the area.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to visit the region upon his return from an official trip to Russia and Hungary, has pledged federal help.

In light of the disaster, Brazil’s Economy Ministry responded by approving tax breaks for both Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo, where the downpours also caused damage.

Since December, heavy rains have triggered deadly floods and landslides across much of Brazil, threatening to delay harvests and briefly forcing the suspension of mining operations in the state of Minas Gerais, just north of Rio.

Reporting by Sebastian Rocandio in Petropolis and Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio de Janeiro; Additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo and Marcela Ayres in Brasilia; Writing by Gabriel Araujo; Editing by John Stonestreet, Alison Williams, Chizu Nomiyama and Diane Craft

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