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Brazil mudslides: Death toll rises to 146 as heavy rains slow down rescue work

Residents look out over a scene of destruction during the second day of operations at the scene of a mudslide in Petropolis, Brazil on February 17, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

The death toll from landslides and flooding in the Brazilian city of Petrópolis has risen to 146, including 26 children, as torrential rains slow down rescue missions. 

On Tuesday, the streets of the historic city of Petrópolis were turned into torrential rivers of mud that swept away homes, cars, and trees following the heaviest rains to hit the region since 1932, according to Rio governor Claudio Castro.

Rio de Janeiro state police said 191 people remained missing as of late Friday and sustained heavy rains forced residents to evacuate the neighborhood which could cause the number of people missing to rise.

As the search churned through its fifth day, workers are digging with spades and shovels through the rubble and muck in a dense fog, with little hope of finding more survivors. Officials say 24 people have been rescued alive, but that came mostly in the early hours after the tragedy.

Authorities say the mountain of mud and rubble is unstable, so the search is being carried out with hand tools and chainsaws at the hardest-to-reach spots, with teams being helped by sniffer dogs.

It would be too dangerous to bring in the excavators being used in less difficult zones near the bottom of the hillside, said Roberto Amaral, coordinator of the local fire department’s special rescue group.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who was in Moscow on an official visit when the landslides began, headed straight for Petropolis on his return to Brazil.

“I saw intense destruction. It looked almost like there had been a war,” Bolsonaro told reporters after his helicopter flyover Friday.

The state fire department said the area received 25.8cm of rain within three hours on Tuesday, almost as much as during the previous 30 days combined.

Heavy rains are typical in the region, especially during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, between December and March. But with climate change, the rains appear to be getting heavier, experts say.

“They are all weather extremes, happening very close to one another. Climate change also acts to increase the frequency of events, and we are clearly observing this,” said Marcelo Seluchi, a coordinator at the government’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters. “It’s not about looking at a particular event, but the total.”

In the past three months, at least 198 people have died in severe rains, mainly in the southeastern state of Sao Paulo and the northeastern state of Bahia, as well as Petropolis.

Rapid urbanization, deforestation, lack of financing for subsidized housing are all considered as the main reasons for the rainstorms in Rio de Janeiro state.

Brazil recorded the most deforestation ever in the Amazon rainforest for the month of January, according to new government data, as the destruction continues to worsen since Bolsonaro took office in 2019 and has weakened environmental protections in the country.

Bolsonaro has long argued for more commercial farming and mining in the Amazon to help lift the region out of poverty.

At the UN climate summit in 2021, 141 countries – including Brazil – signed a pledge to end deforestation by 2030.

The preservation of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, is vital to curbing climate change because of the vast amount of greenhouse gas absorbed in its trees, scientists say.

Average global temperatures are now at least 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than they were before industrialization. Warming of 2C would mean even more intense and frequent extreme rain events and flooding in southern Brazil, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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