Brazil flood victims wade home, death toll at 99
By RICARDO MORAES
Associated Press Writer
ITAJAI, Brazil (AP) -- Flood victims waded through waist-deep water into mud-filled houses Thursday in a devastated part of southern Brazil where neighbors set up patrols to keep looters away and lined up by the thousands for government food handouts.
As waters from torrential rains receded after causing at least 99 deaths, returning residents heaved soaked furniture and damaged electronic goods into the streets of this coastal city at the mouth of the swollen Itajai-Acu River.
Hunger and thirst were so widespread in the city of 170,000 that police were ordered to let residents take food and water from stores because they were "driven by despair to steal," said state public safety spokesman Joao Carlos Santos.
Officers instead targeted thieves who paddled rickety canoes and used motor boats to loot abandoned homes.
The official death toll from the rains in Santa Catarina state's disaster zone rose Thursday to 99 from 97 a day earlier. Mudslides killed most of the victims, and 19 people were officially missing. Authorities said the death toll eventually could climb as high as 150.
"There are still a lot of people buried under tons of mud, which slid down mountainsides like spilled chocolate pudding," Santa Catarina public security chief Ronaldo Benedeti told The Associated Press.
Eight cities that had been isolated since last weekend were relinked to civilization as workers cleared mounds of earth and trees that blocked highways. But nearly 79,000 people remained displaced - 41,000 of them in Itajai.
Public health officials feared a possible outbreak of leptospirosis, a sometimes fatal disease spread by exposure to water contaminated with the urine of infected animals. Dozens of chickens roosted on the roofs of flooded homes in Itajai as residents waded below, salvaging belongings.
Denilson da Silva said floodwaters over the weekend rushed into his two-bedroom wooden house within seconds, giving him barely enough time to get his wife and four small children to his mother's house on higher ground nearby.
At one point, Silva saw men in a boat float toward his semi-submerged home, so he yelled and screamed at them to leave, fearing they would steal his few water-soaked possessions.
"I went back to my house and I saw that I lost everything," said the 32-year-old carpenter. "But at least my family is safe and that is what matters the most."
Officials said there was a risk of more deadly mudslides because the earth is still saturated. Forecasters said the sun may not emerge again until Sunday.
"We're just praying for God to help us soon because it will us take months to get back to normal," said Alexandre de Carvalho as he waited in a line of 400 people to get beans and rice handed out at a local fire station.
The 19-year-old furniture repairman saw his house flooded, took refuge with relatives and returned to his neighborhood to help form a civilian looting watch.
"We're all guarding our houses, because there are a lot of robberies," Carvalho said. "They're breaking in and taking whatever they can grab."
Twenty-three people were arrested for breaking into homes and looting businesses. But police only targeted the commercial robbery suspects who took alcohol, plasma TVs and other nonfood items, Santos said.
Brazil's government airlifted tons of supplies to hard-hit areas of Santa Catarina while trucks loaded with more food and clothes began rolling over roads that were earlier blocked by mud.
The area also faced economic devastation just ahead of the Christmas sales season and an inevitable halt to the heavy January tourism crush during South America's summer, said Antonio Edmundo Pacheco, who heads the Santa Catarina Chamber of Commerce.
The shutdown of Itaiju's port because of flood damage caused a loss of $400 million in revenue in less than a week, Pacheco said.