350 dead, at least 50 missing in Brazil floods

Photo Gallery: Rescuers slow to arrive at remote area in mountains north of Rio de Janeiro; residents have no food, water or medication.

January 13, 2011 19:24
2 minute read.

Brazil 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

TERESOPOLIS, Brazil — Walls of earth and water swept away homes in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, wiping out families and leaving survivors scrambling Thursday to reach still-trapped neighbors.

At least 350 people died in three towns after the slides hit at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, and 50 or more were still missing, according to officials and reliable local news reports.

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"We were like zombies, covered in mud, in the dark, digging and digging" after the slides hit at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, said Geisa Carvalho, 19.

A tremendous rumble awoke Geisa and her mother Vania Ramos as tons of earth slid down a sheer granite rock face onto their neighborhood. The power was out, but by lightning flashes they could see a torrent of mud and water rushing just a few feet (meters) from their home — and the remnants of their neighbors' houses that were swept far down a hill.

"I don't even have the words to describe what I've seen," said Ramos, during a 5-mile (8-kilometer) hike to the main part of her town in search of food and water. "A lot of our friends are dead or missing. There are people we may never find."

Carvalho and Ramos said they ran out of their home moments after the mudslide and joined neighbors in digging for survivors with bare hands and sticks. They quickly located a family of four who had died under the rubble of their home — and said another neighbor's 2-month-old baby was washed away in his crib and has yet to be found.

Nearly all the homes in their Caleme neighborhood were swept to the bottom of a hill, seemingly turned inside out. Tangles of plumbing were wrapped in trees, children's' clothing littered the earth, massive trees were tossed about like toothpicks. A river of water and mud flowed through the streets as a light rain continued to fall Thursday.

Only a few rescuers had managed to hike to Caleme by Thursday and they only had shovels and machetes — not the heavier equipment that may be needed to hunt for survivors. Residents said they had no food, water or medication, and many made the long walk for help to the center of Teresopolis, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio.

Such disasters hit Brazil annually in its rainy summer season and unduly punish the poor, who often live in rickety shacks perched perilously on steep hillsides with little or no foundations.

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