By TATIANA POLLASTRI and ELÉONORE HUGHES, Associated Press
SÃO SEBASTIÃO, Brazil (AP) — Hundreds of rescuers searched Monday for survivors of landslides and flooding that killed at least 36 people along the coast of Brazil’s southern state of São Paulo following a huge weekend downpour.
Worst hit was the city of São Sebastião, where at least 35 were dead. In neighboring Ubatuba a seven-year-old girl was killed. The disaster, in an area famous for beaches flanked by mountains, prompted cancellations in many cities of the Carnival festivities now in full swing elsewhere in the country.
Gov. Tarcisio de Freitas told television network Globo that another 40 people were missing. Nearly 800 people were homeless and 1,730 people have been displaced, his state government said in a statement.
Television footage showed flooded homes with only their roofs visible. Residents used small boats to carry items and people to elevated positions.
A woman who gave only her first name, Mailsa, said she and her husband, daughter, and grandson only barely escaped when a landslide destroyed her house in the Juquehy municipality of São Sebastião. The house was partially submerged, parts of it fell away, and the rest was left precariously perched on the edge of a hill.
“It was very quick. Either you run or you die,” she said. “It’s not possible to take anything, only your life, which is the most important thing.”
Members of the armed forces joined the search and rescue efforts, aggravated by poor access to many areas after landslides blocked the snaking roads in the region’s highlands and floods washed away chunks of pavement in low-lying and oceanfront areas.
“Our rescue teams are not managing to get to several locations. It is a chaotic situation,” São Sebastião Mayor Felipe Augusto said on social media late Sunday night.
Augusto said about 50 houses collapsed in the city due to the landslides, and he posted several videos of destruction and search efforts, including one of a baby being rescued by locals lined up on a flooded street.
The highway connecting Rio de Janeiro state with São Paulo’s port city of Santos was blocked by landslides and floodwaters. Gov. de Freitas said the damage was so extensive, the highway may no longer exist.
Precipitation in São Sebastião had surpassed 23.6 inches during a 24-hour period over the weekend, among the largest such downpours ever in such a short period in Brazil.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited the region on Monday. He observed the damage in São Sebastião from a helicopter and met with Gov. de Freitas at São Sebastião’s theatre, where search operations were being coordinated.
Lula called for people living in the hillside areas to be relocated to safer regions. “Every now and then nature plays a surprise on us, but also many times we defy nature,” Lula said in remarks to reporters in São Sebastião.
De Freitas declared a state of emergency for the hardest-hit cities, including São Sebastião, Ubatuba, Ilhabela, and Bertioga, which enables expedited allocation of funds for relief. He said 7 million reais ($1.35 million) already had been released. On Monday, the governor also declared three days of official mourning throughout the state of São Paulo.
The heavy rain affected water, electricity, and phone services, according to a statement from the state government, which posted a video on Twitter showing 30,000 liters of water being transported to São Sebastião. Hygiene kits, blankets, sleeping bags, mattresses and medical supplies have also been sent.
The Minister of Integration and Regional Development Waldez Góes said on Twitter that experts were already looking into reconstruction plans. “In the coming days, we will work on the reconstruction of bridges, public buildings, housing units, and all the public infrastructure affected,” Góes said.
The affected area, on the northern coast of São Paulo state, is a frequent Carnival destination for wealthy tourists who prefer to stay away from massive street parties in big cities.
Hughes reported from Rio de Janeiro.