Brazil races to save flood victims as storm death toll rises

Members of the Civil Defense carry a girl, who remained more than 12 hours under the rubble of her house, which was destroyed by the heavy rains in Petropolis, Brazil on March 23, 2024. Picture: AFP

Members of the Civil Defense carry a girl, who remained more than 12 hours under the rubble of her house, which was destroyed by the heavy rains in Petropolis, Brazil on March 23, 2024. Picture: AFP

Published Mar 25, 2024


Rescuers in boats and aircraft raced against the clock Sunday to help isolated people in Brazil's mountainous southeast after storms and heavy rains left at least 25 people dead in two states.

A weekend deluge pounded the states of Rio de Janeiro and Espirito Santo, where authorities described a chaotic situation due to flooding.

The death toll in Espirito Santo rose from four to 17 on Sunday as rescuers advanced, aided by water levels that had dropped overnight as the rainfall temporarily subsided.

The most affected municipality was Mimoso do Sul, a town of almost 25,000 inhabitants in the south of Espirito Santo, where flooding has killed at least 15 people.

Ruined mattresses, armchairs and household appliances formed mountains of wreckage in the streets as the floodwaters receded.

"I've never seen a flood like this," Michelly Oliveira, 37, told local news site A Gazeta.

The shopkeeper held back tears as she said she was grateful to be alive, though her source of income -- her shoe store -- was destroyed.

Two more people died in the municipality of Apiaca.

State Governor Renato Casagrande described the situation as "chaotic," though falling water levels on Sunday had allowed rescuers to make their way to previously inaccessible areas.

At least 5,200 people had been evacuated from their homes, state authorities said.

In the neighboring state of Rio de Janeiro at least eight people have been killed, officials said, most of them from landslides.

"It floods every year, at least once. But this year it is already the third," Nicellio Ramos, 52, from Duque de Caxias, told AFP.

Four of the deaths in Rio state occurred when the storm caused a house to collapse in the city of Petropolis, 70 kilometers inland from the capital.

Search teams rescued a girl buried for more than 16 hours there. Her father, who was found dead next to her on Saturday, had "heroically protected the girl with his body," a neighbor told AFP.

- Climate change -

The deluge came after Brazil, South America's largest country, suffered a string of extreme weather events, which experts said are more likely to occur due to climate change.

Such environmental tragedies "are intensifying with climate change," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in a post on social media platform X, adding that thousands had been left homeless by the storm.

He expressed sympathy for the victims, and said his government was working with state and local authorities to "protect, prevent and repair flood damage."

Images on local media showed rivers of water, mud and debris rushing down slopes in picturesque Petropolis, which in February 2022 saw at least 241 deaths from another catastrophic storm.

Dozens of soldiers and firefighters, aided by dogs, worked Saturday in the pouring rain. Part of the cemetery had been washed away, an AFP team in the town saw, with further landslides still a risk.

In Mimoso do Sul, a fire truck was seen being dragged down a street by currents, while images released Saturday by the state fire department showed entire neighborhoods under water, with only the roofs of houses visible.

The National Institute of Meteorology had predicted a severe storm, particularly in Rio, with rainfall of 20 cm a day from Friday through Sunday. Normally, the area receives 14 cm of rain in all of March.

Rio authorities had declared an administrative holiday on Friday as the storm approached and urged people to stay home.

The storm follows a record heat wave, when humidity helped send the heat index soaring above 62 degrees Celsius.