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Race to find survivors after killer Brazil floods

Aerial view after a mudslide in Petropolis, Brazil on February 17, 2022, during the second day of rescue operations. ©AFP

Petrópolis (Brazil) (AFP) - Rescuers raced against the clock Thursday to find survivors among the mud and wreckage caused by devastating flash floods and landslides that killed 110 people in the picturesque Brazilian city of Petropolis.

Streets were turned into torrential rivers of mud burying houses and sweeping away cars and trees in their path in the hillside tourist town north of Rio de Janeiro.

With dozens still reported missing and more rain looming, the first funerals took place of identified victims, who included a 22-year-old woman and her two children, aged five and two.

Amid fears that the toll could climb, firefighters and volunteers scrambled through the remains of houses -- many of them impoverished slums.

As rescue helicopters flew overhead, residents shared stories about loved ones or neighbors swept away.

"Unfortunately, it is going to be difficult to find survivors," Luciano Goncalves, a 26-year-old volunteer, told AFP, completely covered in mud.

"Given the situation, it is practically impossible.But we must do our utmost, to be able to return the bodies to the families.We have to be very careful because there are still areas at risk" of fresh landslides, he added.

Sansao de Santo Domingo, a military policeman aiding the effort, managed to save a small gray dog from the rubble of a house.

"He was scared, he tried to bite me when I arrived. He was defending his territory, because he knew that his masters had been buried below, in the mud," he said.

'Scene from a war'

Some 500 firefighters resumed the search early Thursday after breaking for a few hours due to the instability of the water-soaked soil in the city some 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Rio de Janeiro.

Civil defense authorities have warned of more heavy rains, and the government has said there is a high risk of new landslides.

This was the latest in a series of deadly storms -- which experts say are made worse by climate change -- to hit Brazil in the past three months.

About two dozen people have been rescued alive at the scene, but more than 130 are missing, according to police.

About 700 people have been moved to shelters, mainly in schools, officials said.

Charities have called for donations of mattresses, food, water, clothing and face masks.

Governor Claudio Castro of Rio de Janeiro state said the streets of Petropolis resembled "a scene from a war," adding these were the heaviest rains to hit the region since 1932.

The "historic tragedy" was made worse, Castro added, by "deficits" in urban planning and housing infrastructure.

The effects of uncontrolled urban expansion, said meteorologist Estael Sias, hit the poor hardest when disaster strikes.

"Those who live in these regions at risk are the most vulnerable," he said.

"We are experiencing an economic crisis as a result of the pandemic that made everything worse because the number of people who left areas that were not at risk to settle in areas of risk undoubtedly increased."

City hall declared a state of disaster and three days of mourning.

'Tragedy'

Petropolis -- the 19th-century summer capital of the Brazilian empire -- is a popular destination for tourists fleeing the summer heat of Rio.

It is known for its leafy streets, stately homes, imperial palace -- today a museum -- and the natural beauty of surrounding mountains.

President Jair Bolsonaro, on an official trip to Russia and Hungary, would travel to Petropolis on his return Friday to inspect the damage, the government announced.

Experts say rainy season downpours are being augmented by La Nina -- the cyclical cooling of the Pacific Ocean -- and by climate change.

Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, global warming increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.

Last month, torrential downpours triggered floods and landslides that killed at least 28 people in southeastern Brazil, mainly in Sao Paulo state.

There have also been heavy rains in the northeastern state of Bahia, where 24 people died in December.

Petropolis and the surrounding region were previously hit by severe storms in January 2011, when more than 900 people died in flooding and landslides.

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