The Vancouver Sun
RIO DE JANEIRO - Rescuers searched for flood and landslide survivors Wednesday in southeastern Brazil after the heaviest downpours in almost half a century left at least 113 people dead.
The state of Rio de Janeiro was in mourning as the extent of the disaster became clear and a third day of rains compounded the misery for 5,000 municipal employees trying to clear streets turned to mud.
The situation "is better than it was yesterday," Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes told a news conference, although he maintained the maximum alert level and urged people in high-risk areas to evacuate their homes.
"During the night, fortunately, there were no new landslides, but the risk still exists."
Rain fell intermittently on Wednesday amid sunny spells, providing hope that the worst was over.
But the toll could rise further as dozens were reportedly still missing following the rains, which displaced more than 1,400 people and destroyed scores of homes.
Emergency officials said most fatalities were in hillside slums around the city of Rio de Janeiro, where torrents of water triggered devastating mudslides and scenes of chaos since Monday.
Dozens were killed in Rio itself but hardest hit was Niteroi, a city on the other side of the bay from the state capital where at least 54 people lost their lives.
The flooding was so intense that authorities urged Rio residents to remain indoors and not venture downtown, where streets were impassable.
Some motorists abandoned their partially submerged cars, while others were stranded for hours inside stalled vehicles.
"All the major streets of the city are closed because of the floods," said Paes. "Each and every person who attempts to enter them will be at enormous risk."
Most of the casualties were trapped in landslides in the hillside slums that ring Rio, a city of some 16 million people that will host the World Cup football tournament in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Paes ordered schools in Rio closed Wednesday for a second day in order to keep people off the streets, while state governor Sergio Cabral decreed three days of mourning.
The killer floods also wreaked havoc with air traffic, delaying most international flights in and out of Rio's Antonio Carlos Jobim airport and forcing the cancellation of many domestic services.
In a neighborhood close to the mountain where Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue is located, the local weather service said the recent rainfall was twice the amount normally registered for the whole month of April.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva criticized decades of administrative malfeasance which allowed shoddy home construction in high-risk zones of the city's shantytowns.
"All we can do is pray to God to hold back the rains a little, so that Rio can return to normal, and so that we can set about fixing the things in the city that need fixing," the Brazilian leader told local radio on Tuesday.
The heavy rains began during Monday evening rush hour, catching workers heading home for the day off-guard.
Brazil had already seen deadly deluges in Sao Paulo earlier this year after the wettest summer in the region in more than six decades.
National weather service Inmet said Tuesday's rainfall was the heaviest in 48 years.