SAO PAULO: President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew in Monday to tour the resort region turned disaster zone where floods and landslides killed at least 36 people just as Brazil celebrated carnival, where dozens were still missing. Rescue workers were rushing to find any survivors buried under the mud and rubble before it was too late, after 24 hours of record rain over the weekend devastated the area around the popular coastal city of Sao Sebastiao, around 200 km southeast of Sao Paulo.
Lula’s office released a video of him flying in a helicopter over the area, where landslides triggered by the torrential downpours swept away at least 50 homes. Brown flood waters could be seen engulfing houses just inland from the emerald waters of the region’s pristine coastline. The 75-year-old leftist leader, who took office for a third term last month, was due to meet Sao Paulo state Governor Tarcisio de Freitas and give a news conference later in the day.
Lula said on Twitter that government at all levels would work to “care for the injured, search for the missing and restore roads, energy and telecommunications”. The Sao Paulo state government said the death toll stood at 36: 35 people killed in Sao Sebastiao, and a girl killed in the city of Ubatuba, just up the coast. “Around 40 people have still not been located,” Sao Paulo rescue department official Michelle Cesar told CNN Brasil.
Amid the loss and destruction, authorities said a boy aged two was rescued from a sea of mud, as was a woman who was giving birth. The rescue department said a total of 14 injured people had been rescued. Nearly 1,000 people were evacuated, while 747 lost their homes, authorities said.
The disaster struck just as Brazil celebrated carnival weekend, which draws huge numbers of tourists to Sao Sebastiao and the surrounding area. Authorities said record rains had dumped 600 mm of water on Sao Sebastiao in 24 hours, more than double the usual amount for the entire month of February. “What happened was a natural phenomenon we hadn’t seen in many years,” Sao Paulo civil defense department spokesman Roberto Farina told CNN Brasil.
Landslides blocked key roads, making access to the area difficult. TV and social media footage showed entire neighborhoods under water, debris from hillside houses swept away by oozing earth, flooded highways and cars destroyed by fallen trees, and other damage. “In my 46 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said local chef Eudes Assis, who turned his restaurant into a soup kitchen for those who were left homeless. “People lost what little they had. It’s an incredibly sad moment,” he wrote on Instagram, issuing an appeal for donations.
Around 500 rescue workers, soldiers and police were working on the rescue effort, deploying helicopters, planes and heavy machinery, the state government said. Governor Freitas declared a state of emergency in five towns along the coast, and released the equivalent of $1.5 million for rescue operations. Carnival events in Sao Sebastiao and other towns in the area were cancelled. The national weather institute issued an alert for more heavy rain in the region Monday. – AFP