TERESOPOLIS // Rescue workers in Brazil braced for more rain on Friday as they struggled to reach areas cut off by massive floods and landslides that look certain to have killed more than 500 people.
In one of the country's worst natural disasters, rivers of mud tore through towns in the mountainous Serrana region outside Rio de Janeiro, leveling houses, throwing cars atop buildings and stranding thousands of residents.
"What happened here is absurd. It looks like the war in Vietnam," said Albertino Lazaro, 54, who took shelter in a gymnasium set up to house displaced families in the town of Teresopolis, where at least 223 people were killed.
"It's a lot better than being out there in the mud," he said of the shelter as children played soccer among families sleeping on mattresses.
The death toll was 495 people, according to official tallies late on Thursday, but rescuers had yet to reach some of the worst-hit parts of Teresopolis, including one neighborhood where around 150 houses were believed to have been destroyed.
More than 13,500 people have been left homeless.
The flooding likely caused billions of dollars in damage and has presented President Dilma Rousseff with her first crisis only two weeks after she took office.
Beyond the loss of life and property, the damage from the rains could further boost food prices in parts of southeastern Brazil, a major concern for the government.
The Serrana region is an important producer of fruit and vegetables for the Rio area but the floods have not affected Brazil's main crops such as soy, sugar cane, oranges and coffee.
Rio, famed for its beaches and Carnival, will co-host soccer's World Cup in 2014 and host the Olympics in 2016.
In Teresopolis, bodies had to be taken to a nearby church after the town's morgue filled up. Officials showed pictures of the corpses to residents to identify family members.
In Nova Friburgo, a rural town first settled by Swiss immigrants, at least 214 people died. In Petropolis, once the summer residence for Brazil's royal family, 40 people were killed, while at least 18 died in Sumidoro.
Rousseff, who has earmarked 780 million reais ($460 million) in emergency aid, briefly visited the region to meet local officials. The government said it was sending 210 members of the National Public Security Force to help identify bodies.
Hillsides and riverbanks in the area, about 100km north of Rio, collapsed after the equivalent of a month's rain fell in 24 hours from Tuesday night.
Rescuers worked to haul people from raging floodwaters and combed ruined homes for survivors, often finding only corpses.
But a six-month-old baby was rescued from the rubble of a house, drawing thunderous cheers from residents.
One woman held a dog in the ruins of her house as surging water tore at the remaining walls. She grabbed a rope thrown from a nearby rooftop and was pulled to safety but had to drop the dog into the vicious current.
"The situation is critical but we have to advance. We can't stop," said fire department colonel Jose Paulo Miranda.
Landslides and flash floods are common in much of Brazil, often exposing poor planning and a lack of preventive action by authorities.
Rousseff told reporters that construction of housing in high-risk areas is "the rule in Brazil rather than the exception," adding the lack of adequate housing policy contributed to the problem.