Brazil floods: More than 500 dead

A woman in Brazil narrowly avoids being swept away

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More than 500 people are now known to have died in floods in south-eastern Brazil, the country's worst natural disaster for several decades.

Heavy rain has led to massive mudslides hitting several towns, resulting in thousands being made homeless.

Police say the number of dead is likely to rise further.

The death toll has now surpassed the devastating 1967 mudslides in Caraguatatuba, Sao Paulo state, in which up to 430 people perished.

'Thousands trapped'

Rescue workers will resume searching for survivors in the mountainous Serrana region, north of Rio de Janeiro, later on Friday.

Many spent Thursday scrabbling with their bare hands through debris.

On her visit to the area, President Dilma Rousseff promised a shipment of seven tonnes of medicines.

In the Campo Grande area of Teresopolis, which was earlier cut off, rescuers found people pulling bodies from the mud.

In the neighbouring town of Petropolis, local resident Nelson Toledo told the BBC that some areas "had been completely devastated" by the floods and mudslides.

He said "thousands" of people remained trapped in their homes.

At The Scene

In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, dwellers often argue that they have no choice but to live in high-risk areas built on hillsides.

But that's not at all the case in Teresopolis.

Many of the devastated houses were nice holiday properties kept by Rio residents, who come to the mountains to escape the oppressive heat of summer in the city.

The waterfalls, steep slopes and fantastic views from this mountain range are a magnet for visitors but also provide for a rather dangerous and unstable terrain.

The Brazilian military have brought in a field hospital and hundreds of people have taken refuge in the gymnasium in Teresopolis.

But the number of injured was threatening to overwhelm the medical services.

Jorge Mario, mayor of Teresopolis, said: "There are three or four neighbourhoods that were totally destroyed in rural areas. There are hardly any houses standing there and all the roads and bridges are destroyed."

In one dramatic rescue which was filmned, 53-year-old Ilair Pereira de Souza was pulled by rope from a destroyed house surrounded by raging water.

"I thought I was going to die," she said.

Ms Pereira de Souza had jumped with her dog Beethoven but was forced to let him go to survive.

"If I had tried to save him, I would have died. The poor thing. He stayed for a moment looking me in the eyes, and then he was swept away."

Map

"It's very overwhelming. The scenes are very shocking," President Rousseff said on her visit to the area on Thursday.

The day before, she signed a decree authorising 780m reais ($480m; £296m) in emergency funding for the affected areas.

Ms Rousseff described the destruction as an act of God but she also expressed anger at illegal construction.

"We saw areas in which mountains untouched by men dissolved. But we also saw areas in which illegal occupation caused damage to the health and lives of people."

Saying that building houses in risky areas was "the rule rather than the exception" in Brazil, she added: "When there are no housing policies in place, where will a person with an income of up to two minimum wages live? He will live where he is not allowed to."

'Humble people'

Ms Rousseff said the state would care for the victims but said stopping future tragedies would be a priority.

Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis

  • The towns, which lie in a region called the Serrana, are popular holiday destinations for city dwellers keen to enjoy fresh mountain air and verdant surroundings
  • They also attract mountain climbers from around the country and elsewhere
  • In the 19th Century they were a popular summer destination for emperors and aristocrats. Petropolis was named after Emperor Pedro II, and is known as the Imperial City of Brazil
  • The area also has historical links with German and Swiss settlers
  • Tourism has replaced agriculture as the region's principal economic activity
  • The towns' populations have quadrupled over the last 30 years, according to the local governor

"We are here to guarantee that this moment of reconstruction will also be a moment of prevention."

Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral blamed local governments for allowing poor building and illegal occupations.

"Unfortunately, what we saw in Petropolis, Teresopolis and Nova Friburgo, since the 1980s, was a problem similar to what happened in the city of Rio - letting the poorer people occupy risk areas."

He said some rich mansions had been damaged but most of the victims were "humble people".

Mr Cabral ended the news conference by asking people in risk areas to leave their houses and seek public shelter or in other homes.

"The weather forecast is not reassuring, and new mudslides could occur," he said.

About 200 people are so far known to died in Nova Friburgo, some 175 in Teresopolis and dozens more in Petropolis, media report.

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