Brazil calamity toll rises to 529

Rain complicates rescue operations; many still buried under debris

In one of the country’s worst natural disasters, rivers of mud tore through towns in the mountainous Serrana region outside Rio de Janeiro, leveling houses, throwing cars atop buildings and leaving thousands of people seeking shelter.

“The rain did not stop at dawn and is continuing in the morning, which is making the rescue efforts more difficult,” said Lieutenant Rubens Placido, a fireman in the hard-hit town of Nova Friburgo. “The number of deaths is going to rise quite a bit. There are still a lot of people buried.”

The flooding killed at least 529 people, according to local and state authorities, but rescuers are uncovering more victims buried under wrecked homes and toppled buildings. More than 13,500 people have been left homeless. 

Emergency teams have to reach the worst-hit areas on foot and dig through the rubble by hand to find survivors because vehicles and heavy equipment still cannot cross blocked roads, the O Globo television news network reported.

The state of Rio de Janeiro sent military police to maintain order in the area after reports food had been looted from stores.

The disaster likely caused billions of dollars in damage and has presented President Dilma Rousseff with her first crisis only two weeks after taking office. Beyond the loss of life and property, the damage from the rains could further boost food prices in parts of southeastern Brazil, a major concern for the government.

In Teresopolis, where at least 223 people were killed, bodies had to be taken to a nearby church after the town’s morgue filled up. Officials showed pictures of the corpses to residents to help them identify family members. In Nova Friburgo, a rural town first settled by Swiss immigrants, at least 246 people died. In Petropolis, once the summer residence for Brazil’s royal family, 41 people were killed, while at least 19 died in Sumidoro.

Rousseff, who has earmarked 780 million reais ($460 million) in emergency aid, briefly visited the region to meet local officials. The government said it was sending 210 members of the National Public Security Force to help identify bodies.

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