NOVA FRIBURGO, Brazil (AFP) – Brazilians braced for more rains Friday fearing further catastrophic landslides, after walls of muddy water claimed over 500 lives in was reported to be the country's worst-ever flood disaster.
As rescue teams and residents combed the wreckage of hillside communities near tourist hotspot Rio de Janiero, forecasters warned the wet weather was likely to last into next week.
"It will keep raining until at least next Wednesday in the Serrana region of Rio de Janeiro. We are predicting a light but steady rain, which is not good because it could lay the conditions for more landslides," warned the head of national weather institute, Luiz Cavalcanti
He stressed "light but continuous rain is very dangerous" because there is nowhere for it to flow away to and "it accumulates until the earth gives way under its weight and swallows up the hillside."
The bad weather was hampering efforts to reach many small towns and rural areas, cut off after the floods washed away roads and tracks.
An official with Rio's state health service, Colonel Fernando Suarez, told AFP that at least 514 people were killed when torrents of water swept down hillsides in three towns before dawn Wednesday.
"Personally, I think the number could increase by maybe another 100," he said, explaining that a few remote hamlets, cut-off by destroyed roads, had still to be accounted for.
An estimated 12,000 people were left homeless.
Forecasters have said the storms dumped the equivalent of a month's rain on the area in just a few hours, and blamed the unusually wet weather on the La Nina phenomenon which has increased rainfall in southeast Brazil.
The G1 news outlet called it "the biggest climatic tragedy in the history of the country," surpassing the 437 people killed in a 1967 mudslide previously considered Brazil's worst disaster.
"The forecast of more rains is not reassuring," said the Rio governor Sergio Cabral, again urging residents to abandon their homes in the disaster zones and move to safer ground.
One woman hastily throwing bags into her car, Marise Ventura, 54, said she and others had no choice but to leave Nova Friburgo, one of the worst hit towns.
"I'm going because there's no electricity anywhere, no water, no food... So I'm going to a relative's place," she told AFP.
In the town center, mud had taken over a square in front of a white church. Bulldozers and plastic-clad workers were clearing the area.
"It's a total calamity. The town is finished. It was a tourist city, now it's finished," said local, Zaquequ Pereira Gonacalves, 37.
The catastrophe is the first major challenge facing new Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, sworn into office on January 1.
"It's very overwhelming. The scenes are very shocking," she said after visiting the area Thursday, and pledging "strong action." Her government has already released 470 million dollars in initial emergency aid and sent seven tonnes of medical supplies.
Storms dumped the equivalent of a month's rain in just a few hours before dawn Wednesday, sending mudslides slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.
The worst affected towns were Nova Friburgo, which recorded 230 deaths, Teresopolis, with 227 deaths, and Petropolis, with 41 deaths, according to municipal officials, according to Suarez. Another 16 fatalities were registered in the village of Sumidouro.
Churches and police stations have been turned into makeshift morgues, the smell of decomposing corpses heavy in the warm air.
Survivors desperate for news swamped the morgues and scrutinized photos in an attempt to identify the missing. Many of the bodies were those of children, women and old people.
A fireman described the gut-wrenching ordeal. "You have no idea how hard it is to see the bodies of so many children... It's horrible," he told AFP.
Originally a 19th century getaway for Brazilian aristocracy, Nova Friburgo and neighboring Teresopolis and Petropolis increasingly came to rely on tourism for their livelihoods.
Hotels say they have lost millions with the mudslides wiping out their usually lucrative summer vacation season which has just started.