RIO DE JANEIRO – The death toll from 24 hours of torrential downpours in and around Brazil’s second-largest city has reached 93, firefighters said Tuesday.
Half of the fatalities were in the Rio de Janeiro suburbs of Niteroi and Sao Gonzalo, while 33 people died in Rio proper.
The vast majority of the dead perished in rain-driven mudslides that buried dwellings in the region’s numerous hillside “favelas,” or shantytowns.
“There will be more deaths, probably, since there are several mudslides where we are still working” to recover bodies, the chief of emergency services in Rio de Janeiro state, Sergio Cortes, told Globo television.
He said eight firefighters were hurt while carrying out rescue and recovery efforts in Niteroi.
“It’s never rained so much in Rio de Janeiro,” state Gov. Sergio Cabral said after 178 mm (seven inches) of rain fell in the space of 17 hours.
“This is the worst flooding in the history of Rio de Janeiro,” the governor told Globo TV after meeting with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The rainstorm caused massive traffic jams in Rio de Janeiro, prompting officials to recommend that people stay home on Tuesday.
Traffic came to a standstill in different sections of the city as streets turned into rivers, covering automobiles.
“All the most important streets in the city have been affected by flooding. It poses a tremendous risk to anyone who tries to cross these floodwaters,” Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes said in a press release.
The mayor called on people to stay off the streets and urged those living in mountainous areas to evacuate to safer sections of the city in light of the danger posed by mudslides.
Public and private schools cancelled classes, while many offices and businesses also closed because employees could not get to work.
Cabral questioned the policies of his predecessors, blaming the large number of deaths on previous administrations that allowed the favelas to grow.
Lula, who had to cancel the majority of the events he had scheduled in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday, urged residents of high-risk areas to seek shelter in safer parts of the city.
He also joined Rio de Janeiro officials in calling on residents to stay home on Tuesday.
Many neighborhoods in northern and southern Rio de Janeiro are cut off and without electricity.
Mudslides and fallen trees blocked streets in some sections of the city.
Officials closed down some of the tunnels that link different parts of the city, as well as the 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) bridge that connects Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi.
The international airport is operating with back-up equipment, but the regional airport has been closed since Monday night.
The rain began to ease just before noon, but forecasters expect the downpours to continue through Wednesday with less intensity.
The amount of rain that fell over the first 17 hours of the storm was nearly double the precipitation that Rio normally receives for the entire month of April, meteorologists said. EFE