Devastating mudslips and floods swept away entire neighbourhoods in mountains near Rio de Janeiro, killing at least 335 people as rescue workers searched frantically for survivors on Thursday.
Villages and homes in the three municipalities north of Rio were flattened by rivers of mud and tumbling rocks spilling from the mountains, said GloboNews television.
“It's a huge catastrophe, a major disaster,” said Jorge Mario Sedlacek, the Mayor of the worst-hit town of Teresopolis. At least 146 people have been killed in the town, 100 km from Rio.
Other officials said the disaster was the worst ever to befall the Serrana, a soaring, lush area that used to be a getaway for 19th-century Brazilian nobility and which is now a tourist spot, especially for Rio residents during the current southern hemisphere summer.
In Nova Friburgo, 140 km north of Rio, the number of victims rose to 155, while 34 were killed in Petropolis, according to GloboNews.
At least three firemen were killed when they were engulfed in tonnes of mud as they tried to rescue victims.
The death toll could rise, said a spokesman for the Teresopolis municipality. “There are villages in the interior which we haven't yet reached,” he said.
Officials in Teresopolis said 2,200 people have either lost or had to abandon their homes.
The full extent of the devastation remained unknown because communication and access to the stricken zone was complicated by the destruction of roads and bridges, while telephone service was cut in some areas.
Authorities say they are particularly concerned over the fate of residents in the Campo Grande area of Teresopolis, where Civil Defence teams estimate 2,000 houses have been destroyed and 150 people buried, according to the G1 de Globo website.
Meteorologists blamed the extraordinary precipitation on a cold front that intensified the already heavy wet season south-eastern Brazil experiences every summer.
That cold front moved through Sao Paulo early in the week before moving on to Rio de Janeiro state.
More rain was forecast in the coming days. — AFP