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Floods and mudslides kill hundreds near Rio

By Guy Adams

Survivors told yesterday how they frantically dug with their hands to try to find victims buried by a string of landslides which struck hillside communities around Rio de Janeiro, as Brazil's flood death toll climbed to more than 460.

Torrential rains early on Wednesday morning caused entire neighbourhoods to be swept away in the night, destroying roads, flattening homes, and burying families as they slept. At least 50 people and possibly many more are still missing. Ten inches of rain hit the Serrana region in less than 24 hours, leaving a total of 13,500 locals homeless.

The death toll was at 464 last night, and the worst of the disaster may be yet to come: more heavy storms are forecast to arrive over the weekend. Dramatic accounts of homes vanishing under a wall of mud and water were being shared yesterday, as reporters arrived on the scene.

"We were like zombies, covered in mud, in the dark, digging and digging," said a survivor, Geisa Carvalho.

Her mother, Vania Ramos, recalled how she woke to a loud rumble at about 3am, as tons of earth from the hill above the town of Teresopolis slid down a rock face, and demolished their neighbourhood.

"I don't even have the words to describe what I've seen," she told the Associated Press. She said a power cut meant they were forced to rely on lightning flashes to see as they braved pouring rain to dig out survivors, using their hands and sticks.

"A lot of our friends are dead or missing. There are people we may never find," Mrs Ramos said, adding that, although she quickly located a family of four buried under the rubble of their home, she was unable to find a neighbour's two-month-old baby, who was washed away in his cot.

Morgues in Teresopolis, the epicentre of the disaster, are full, and bodies covered in sheets have been laid out in the streets.

Much of the town is still under waist-deep water, and rescue efforts are hampered because roads have disappeared and phone networks are working only intermittently.

Some of the worst-hit parts of town, including the Campo Grande neighbourhood, are now only accessible via a five-mile hike through a muddy jungle. That makes the relief effort even harder, and has led to fears by doctors that bacterial infection could spread because of unclean water supplies.

"It's like an earthquake struck some areas," said Jorge Mario, the mayor. "The death toll is going to climb a lot. There are a lot of people buried who can't get help because rescue teams can't get there."

That fear was echoed on the ground in Campo Grande. "I have friends still lost in all of this mud," Carols Eurico, a resident, told reporters. "It's all gone. It's all over now. We're putting ourselves in the hands of God."

In the same area, a camera crew found Nilson Martins, 35, holding the only thing he'd pulled out alive from the rubble since dawn: a pet rabbit with fur that had somehow remained white despite the sea of mud. "We're just digging around – there is no way of knowing where to look," he said.

"There are three more bodies under the rubble over there. One seems to be a girl, no more than 16, dead, buried under that mud."

Like most natural disasters, the landslides have taken the majority of victims from poorer communities, who tend to live in rickety homes without proper foundations, built on marginal land on the outskirts of urban areas.

Similar disasters strike Brazil almost every rainy season, though never on this scale.

"There are so many disappeared, and so many that will probably never be found," said Angela Marina de Carvalho Silva, in Teresopolis, who told Reuters she may have lost 15 relatives.

The death toll makes the mudslides Brazil's worst natural disaster for 40 years, which comes just days after the new President, Dilma Rousseff, took office. She was to visit the affected region last night.

In the medium term, ruined crops mean that food, already rising in price, will soon cost even more.

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