Extreme rain, mudslides in Brazil kill at least 78 people

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Feb. 16 (UPI) — Powerful mudslides swept through a mountainous region north of Rio de Janeiro Wednesday and killed at least 78 people, though local authorities warn the death toll could rise.

Intense rain started Tuesday evening, dumping more precipitation overnight on the mountainous town of Petrópolis than the region usually sees during the entire month of February. Videos posted to social media depicted people, buildings and vehicles swept up as water and mud filled the streets, with some debris blocking routes to higher ground.

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Search and rescue efforts took place Wednesday, with firefighters and residents searching for survivors.

“It’s almost a warlike situation,” Rio de Janeiro Gov. Cláudio Castro said at a news briefing covered by The Washington Post. “All of our teams are mobilized: firefighters, departments and all other state agencies.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was on a trip to Russia, said on Twitter that he’s aware of the tragedy and that he instructed Castro to deliver support.

“May God comfort the family members of the victims,” Bolsonaro wrote.

For many in the country, the extreme flooding was a painful reminder of a similar 2011 event that killed 900 people, marking the worst natural disaster in Brazil’s history.

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Petrópolis — also called the “Imperial City,” so named for its popularity among Brazil’s monarchs in the 19th century — is made up of historic buildings and homes perched up on the mountains 70 miles north of the Rio de Janeiro coastline. It has a population of just over 300,000 people.

Cássia de Castro Martins Ferreira, a researcher at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, told The New York Times that Petrópolis’ unique geography makes it vulnerable to this kind of extreme weather — incidents that are growing more common as the climate changes.

“What we saw was a really extreme event,” she said. “It didn’t rain — it was an extraordinary amount of water that poured down.”

She added that Brazil’s top priority should be improving alert systems to residents ahead of extreme weather events. In Petrópolis, only a few neighborhoods have weather sirens.