Brazil mudslide death toll is at 117 and police say 116 are missing

A view of a mudflow down a hillside packed with homes
Heavy rains set off mudslides and floods in a mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro state, killing at least 110 people in Brazil.
(Silvia Izquierdo / Associated Press)

The death toll from floods and landslides that swept down on the mountain city of Petropolis in Brazil rose to at least 117 on Thursday and local officials said it could still rise sharply, with 116 people still unaccounted for.

The Rio de Janeiro state government confirmed the increase in fatalities, with many others feared trapped in mud. German-influenced Petropolis is nestled in the mountains above the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Torrents of floodwaters and mudslides dragged cars and houses through Petropolis’ streets Tuesday during the most intense rainfall in decades. One video showed two buses sinking into a swollen river as passengers clambered out the windows, scrambling to safety. Some didn’t make it to the banks and were washed away, out of sight.

Survivors dug through the ruined landscape to find loved ones even as more landslides appeared likely on the city’s slopes. A small slide Thursday prompted an evacuation but didn’t cause injuries.


As evening came, heavy showers returned to the region, sparking renewed concern among residents and rescue workers. Authorities insisted those living in at-risk areas should evacuate.

Rosilene Virginia said her brother barely escaped, and she considers it a miracle. But a friend hasn’t yet been found.

“It’s very sad to see people asking for help and having no way of helping, no way of doing anything,” Virginia told the Associated Press as a man comforted her. “It’s desperate, a feeling of loss so great.”

As some people tried to clear away mud, others began burying lost relatives, with 17 funerals at the damaged cemetery.

Police said in a statement Thursday that about 200 agents were checking lists of the living, the dead and the missing by visiting checkpoints and shelters, as well as the city’s morgue. They said they managed to remove three people from a list of those missing after finding them alive in a local school.

“Every detail is important so we can track people,” said Rio police investigator Elen Souto. “We need people to [provide] the full name of the missing person, their ID, physical traits and the clothes that person was wearing.”

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Petropolis, named for a former Brazilian emperor, has been a refuge for residents of Rio de Janeiro keen to escape the summer heat and tourists eager to explore the so-called Imperial City.

Its prosperity has also drawn residents from Rio’s poorer regions. Its population grew haphazardly, with the city’s hillsides now covered with small residences packed tightly together. Many are in areas unfit for structures and made more vulnerable by deforestation and inadequate drainage.

The state fire department said slightly more than 10 inches of rain fell within three hours Tuesday — almost as much as during the previous 30 days. Rio de Janeiro Gov. Claudio Castro said in a news conference that the rains were the worst Petropolis has seen since 1932.

“No one could predict rain as hard as this,” Castro said. More rain is expected through the rest of the week, according to weather forecasters.

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Castro said that nearly 400 people were left homeless and 24 people were found alive. They were fortunate, and they were few.

Lisa Torres Machado, 64, said “the hand of God” spared her family from tragedy.

“A little room was left at my mom’s house, and she hid there with my two sisters and brother,” Machado, a resident of Petropolis for three decades, told the AP. “I can’t sleep. I still can’t believe what’s happening. We lost all our friends.”

The stricken mountain region has seen similar catastrophes in recent decades, including one that caused more than 900 deaths in 2011. In the years since, Petropolis presented a plan to reduce risks of landslides, but the work has been advancing slowly. The plan, presented in 2017, was based on an analysis determining that 18% of the city’s territory was at high risk of landslides and flooding.

Local authorities say more than 180 residents who live in at-risk areas are sheltering in schools. More equipment and manpower are expected to assist in rescue efforts Thursday.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro expressed solidarity while on a trip to Russia. Petropolis’ City Hall declared three days of mourning.

Southeastern Brazil has been punished with heavy rains since the start of the year, with more than 40 deaths recorded in incidents in Minas Gerais state in early January and in Sao Paulo state later in the month.