Pounding rain in northeastern Brazil has left at least 44 people dead and even more unaccounted for, authorities said Sunday, as rescuers took advantage of a lull in showers to look for survivors.
“We registered 44 dead, 56 missing, 25 injured, 3,957 without shelter and 533 displaced,” Minister of Regional Development Daniel Ferreira told a press conference in Recife, the capital of hard-hit northeastern Pernambuco state.
The disaster is the latest in a recent series of deadly landslides and floods triggered by extreme weather in Brazil.
The number of dead had mounted since 34 since Saturday, with at least 28 killed in landslides, as heavy rains caused rivers to overflow and torrents of mud swept away everything in their path.
Authorities warned that heavy rain was forecast to continue Sunday, but the storm subsided in the morning.
As the weather broke, some 1,200 personnel resumed search and rescue work, state officials said, but Ferreira urged caution.
“Although it has stopped raining now, we are forecasting heavy rains for the next few days,” he said.
“So the first thing is to maintain self-protection measures.”
Between Friday night and Saturday morning, rainfall volume reached 70% of what was forecast for all of May in some parts of Recife.
Images circulated on local media showed rescue workers and volunteers clearing heaps of debris in Jardim Monteverde, on the border between Recife and the municipality of Jaboatao dos Guararapes, where 19 died Saturday morning in a landslide that ripped through precariously built homes.
Luiz Estevao Aguiar, who lives in a different municipality, lost 11 relatives in the disaster, he told TV Globo.
“My sister, my brother-in-law, 11 people from my family died. It was difficult… I did not expect this,” he said tearfully.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said Sunday he would travel to Recife on Monday following the “tragedy.”
Over the past year, hundreds of Brazilians have died in flooding and landslides brought on by torrential downpours.
In February, more than 230 people were killed in the city of Petropolis, the Brazilian then-empire’s 19th-century summer capital, in Rio de Janeiro state.
Early last month 14 more were killed by flooding and landslides in the state.
Experts say Brazil’s rainy season downpours are being augmented by La Nina – the cyclical cooling of the Pacific Ocean – and by climate change.
Because a hotter atmosphere holds more water, global warming increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.
Risks from heavy rains are augmented by topography and poor construction in shantytowns built in steep areas.
According to meteorologist Estael Sias, of the MetSul agency, the heavy rains lashing Pernambuco and, to a lesser extent, four other northeastern states, are the product of a typical seasonal phenomenon called “eastern waves.”
He explained that those are areas of “atmospheric disturbance” that move from Africa to Brazil’s northeastern coastal region.
“In other areas of the Atlantic this instability forms hurricanes, but in northeastern Brazil it has the potential for a lot of rain and even thunderstorms,” he said.