At least 511 people have died as a result of downpours over the last four days in the Serrana region of the southeastern state of Rio de Janeiro in one of the worst natural disasters in Brazilian history, authorities said Friday.
Floods and mudslides caused 228 deaths in the city of Teresopolis, 225 in Nova Friburgo, 39 in Petropolis and 19 in Sumidouro.
The death toll could increase still more since firefighters have not been able to reach many places isolated by the destruction of bridges and highways, and by the tons of mud and stones covering built-up areas in the mountains.
Authorities also said they were afraid the situation would get worse because of the forecast that rains will continue over the next few days, though not has heavy as the storm that flooded the region Tuesday night.
Friday before dawn the rains continued but were lighter and the authorities received no reports of any more mudslides.
“What worries us are the coming hours and days, since more rains are forecast. And the problem is not restricted to these four municipalities – there are others that suffered from the rains and areas still at risk from mudslides,” Rio state Gov. Sergio Cabral said.
Though morgues were full to capacity in cities of the Serrana region and there were even bodies in parking lots, police have managed to identify 470 of the victims.
Several of the affected areas, covered with mountains of mud and garbage, remain in total chaos because they are isolated and without electricity or telephone service.
Emergency management work continued without pause early Friday in Teresopolis, but had to be suspended in the other three municipalities for lack of electricity and because of the rain itself.
The dimension of the tragedy has been attributed both to climate change, which increased the intensity of the rains that normally fall in Brazil during this season of the year, as well as to the unregulated, disorderly settlements on the mountainsides of the Serrana region.
Cabral said that municipal authorities in the Serrana region have been very “permissive” toward the construction of housing on mountainsides that have been considered high-risk areas over the last 30 years.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who flew by helicopter Thursday over the most affected areas, commented that the biggest problem is that “housing in high-risk areas has become the rule in this country and not the exception.”
Besides the fatalities, the tragedy has left some 10,000 people homeless and a still undetermined number missing, officials say.
The rainy season of January-April 2009 left 283 people dead in Rio de Janeiro state. Fox News