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Landslides and flooding in Brazil kill at least 36 as search continues for the missing

Rescue workers search in a ruined house
Rescue workers search for survivors after flooding triggered landslides near Juquehy Beach in Sao Sebastiao, Brazil.
(Andre Penner / Associated Press)
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Hundreds of rescuers Monday searched for survivors of landslides and flooding that killed at least 36 people along the coast of Brazil’s southern state of Sao Paulo following a weekend downpour.

Worst hit was the city of Sao Sebastiao, where at least 35 were dead. In neighboring Ubatuba, a 7-year-old girl was killed. The disaster, in an area famous for beaches flanked by mountains, prompted cancellations in many cities of Carnival festivities, which are in full swing elsewhere in the country.

Sao Paulo Gov. Tarcisio de Freitas told television network Globo that 40 people were missing. Nearly 800 people were homeless and 1,730 displaced, his state government said in a statement.

Television footage showed flooded homes, with only the roofs visible. Residents used small boats to reach elevated positions.

Brazil’s Carnival is back, meaning that glittery and outrageous costumes are once again being prepared and street parties are drawing millions.

Feb. 17, 2023

A woman who gave only her first name, Mailsa, said she and her husband, daughter and grandson barely escaped when a landslide destroyed her house in the Juquehy municipality of Sao Sebastiao. The house was partially submerged, parts of it fell away, and the rest was left precariously perched on the edge of a hill.

“It was very quick. Either you run or you die,” she said. “It’s not possible to take anything, only your life, which is the most important thing.”

Members of the armed forces joined the search-and-rescue efforts, aggravated by poor access to many areas after landslides blocked the snaking roads in the region’s highlands and floods washed away chunks of pavement in low-lying and oceanfront areas.

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“Our rescue teams are not managing to get to several locations. It is a chaotic situation,” Sao Sebastiao Mayor Felipe Augusto said on social media late Sunday night.

Augusto said about 50 houses had collapsed in the city due to landslides and posted videos of destruction and search efforts, including one of a baby being rescued by locals lined up on a flooded street.

The highway connecting Rio de Janeiro state with Sao Paulo’s port city of Santos was blocked by landslides and floodwaters. De Freitas said the damage was so extensive that the highway may be irreperable.

Precipitation in Sao Sebastiao surpassed 600 millimeters (23.6 inches) during a 24-hour period over the weekend, among the most ever in such a short period in Brazil.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited the region Monday. He observed the damage in Sao Sebastiao from a helicopter and met with De Freitas at the city’s theater, where search operations were being coordinated.

Lula called for people living in the hillside areas to be relocated to safer regions.

“Every now and then, nature plays a surprise on us, but also many times we defy nature,” Lula said in remarks to reporters.

De Freitas declared a state of emergency for the hardest-hit cities — including Sao Sebastiao, Ubatuba, Ilhabela and Bertioga — which enables expedited allocation of relief funds. He said $1.35 million already had been released. On Monday, the governor also declared three days of official mourning throughout the state of Sao Paulo.

The heavy rain affected water, electricity and phone services, according to a statement from the state government, which posted on Twitter a video showing 30,000 liters of water being transported to Sao Sebastiao. Hygiene kits, blankets, sleeping bags, mattresses and medical supplies have also been sent.

Minister of Integration and Regional Development Waldez Góes said on Twitter that experts were looking into repairs.

“In the coming days, we will work on the reconstruction of bridges, public buildings, housing units and all the public infrastructure affected,” Góes tweeted.

The affected area, on the northern coast of Sao Paulo state, is a frequent Carnival destination for wealthy tourists who prefer to avoid street parties in big cities.

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