Hope for more survivors ebbs in Brazil area hit by mudslides

Rescue workers, residents, and volunteers search for victims after a mudslide caused by heavy rains in the coastal city of Guaruja, Brazil, Wednesday, March 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
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Standing amid debris where his house and repair shop once stood, Antônio Pereira Farias took stock of what little remained Wednesday. He saved his wife and son from a thunderous cascade of mud, he said, but his daughter and son-in-law were among those missing.

The life of Pereira Farias, 70, is just one of many that torrential rains churned into upheaval early Tuesday when storms deluged the coast of Sao Paulo state. He hadn’t slept since, and his mind’s disarray was reflected in the wreckage. Motorcycle parts lay beside soaked clothes and slabs of drywall, and it stank of mud and damp.

“I lost my house, my daughter, which is what I loved the most in my life …,” he said, gasping, then summoned a means to continue. “I lost a pick-up truck, a Volkswagen, all I had in my repair shop. It’s all over. Everything I had, the water washed away.”

Pereira lived in the hillside working class neighborhood of Barreira, which was the hardest hit part of Guaruja, a city where mudslides killed 20 people and 18 remained missing.

The district of shabbily built homes is far from the beachfront mansions owned by the likes of soccer stars Pelé and Neymar, and is highly vulnerable to a catastrophic downpour. The region received more rain in just 24 hours than had been expected for all of March.

A total of 25 people were known dead, including five more killed in two other municipalities and six still missing.

Searchers used their hands to remove rocks and rubble Wednesday, feeding the debris to lines of workers using buckets to pass the material out from landslide sites. Authorities suspended the search effort as nightfall darkened the hillside, but television showed some volunteers persisting with flashlights. As the hours slipped past, hope of finding more survivors dwindled.

Maria da Conceição, a resident of Barreira, spent the day making sandwiches for those digging through the muck.

She said that when rain started pouring late Monday, she was gripped by a sense of foreboding. “I spent all that night praying to God that this wouldn’t happen,” she said.

The storm left more than 400 people without homes in four cities, including about 150 in Guaruja, and even many people whose homes escaped being wrecked were having troubles.

Elizabete Martins’ electricity had been out since the storm, and authorities demanded she vacate her house.

“There’s no way I can afford to pay rent,” said Martins, a homemaker. “Today I slept at my sister’s, with her son in a small room. I don’t live where I live because I want to, but it’s all I have.”

The first victims from the landslides were buried Wednesday.

One was firefighter Rogério de Morais Santos, who suffered a heart attack while trying to save a mother and her baby in Barreira. Burly firemen and police officers wept. Later, police fired their rifles into the ground in tribute.

In Barreira, Paloma Ribeiro drifted in limbo struggling to keep up morale for her missing father.

“We know that there’s still hope in the first 48 hours after the landslide happened,” the student said, flanked by two friends while sitting on a beach chair. “But the more time passes, the more upset I feel. I fear for the worst, but I just can’t say it now.”