Alarms rang out across the Brazilian city of Petrópolis on Thursday, warning of more heavy rain to come after floods and landslides killed at least 117 people with more than 100 missing.
The rescue mission has been temporarily called off and some people, fearing more destruction, are fleeing the city. One volunteer rescuer said that finding survivors under the rubble was now “practically impossible”.
This week’s rainfall in Petrópolis was the heaviest in nearly a century. The downpours on Tuesday alone exceeded the average for the whole of February, triggering landslides and floods in the city north of Rio and turning streets into rivers of mud. Homes were engulfed and vehicles swept away.
The first funerals took place on Thursday for the victims who had been formally identified, with the stories of those who died starting to come to light – like that of Helena, who had started at nursery just a few days before the landslide destroyed the home she shared with her family. “I enjoyed my baby’s company for little more than one year,” her mother Giselli Carvalho, who also lost her mother and niece in the disaster, told Brazilian news channel Globo TV.
In Morro da Oficina, the residents are struggling to comprehend the landslide which had swept through the middle of their once-crowded neighbourhood, wiping out everything in its wake. At the bottom of the destroyed area, a mother arrives to recover her daughter’s body, flanked by a family with shovels in hand. Families and authorities worked in unison as they searched through the rubble, picking apart the mangled steel and broken concrete mixed in with metres of thick red mud.
Residents need the experts to dig safely, but the rescue workers can’t do it without the local knowledge. However, hopes are fading: the death toll slowly rose through the day, but no more survivors were pulled from the wreckage, according to Brazil’s National Civil Defence, which has been providing updates on Twitter. And while relatives don’t want to let go of hope in finding people alive, many were realistic this is a recovery operation now, not a rescue mission.
The local morgue, already under strain, has been forced to use a refrigerated truck for extra space. “Unfortunately, it is going to be difficult to find survivors,” volunteer Luciano Goncalves told AFP, completely covered in mud. “It is practically impossible. But we must do our utmost to be able to return the bodies to the families.”
Petrópolis, usually a popular tourist getaway to escape the summer heat, is now a city in trauma. The neighbourhood has been ripped apart, yet brought together in the worst possible circumstances, united in grief and pain.