TERESOPOLIS, Brazil — The power was out, but lightning flashes illuminated the horror as villagers watched neighbors' homes vanish under a wall of mud and water, turning neighborhoods into graveyards. Survivors dug at the earth barehanded Thursday, but all they found were bodies.
It was a scene of muddy destruction in mountain towns north of Rio, where at least 476 people were killed when torrential rains unleashed mudslides in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, burying people alive as they slept. Officials would not venture guesses on how many people were missing – but fears were high that the death toll could sharply rise.
In the remote Campo Grande neighborhood of Teresopolis, now accessible only by a perilous five-mile (eight-kilometer) hike through mud-slicked jungle, family members pulled the lifeless bodies of loved ones from the muck. They carefully laid the corpses on dry ground, covering them with blankets.
A young boy cried out as his father's body was found: "I want to see my dad! I want to see my dad!"
Flooding and mudslides are common in Brazil when the summer rains come, but this week's slides were among the worst in recent memory. The disasters unduly punish the poor, who often live in rickety shacks perched perilously on steep hillsides with little or no foundations. But even the rich did not escape the damage in Teresopolis, where large homes were washed away.
"I have friends still lost in all of this mud," said Carlos Eurico, a resident of the city's Campo Grande neighborhood, as he motioned to a sea of destruction behind him. "It's all gone. It's all over now. We're putting ourselves in the hands of God."
In the same area, Nilson Martins, 35, carefully held the only thing pulled out alive since dawn: a pet rabbit that had somehow remained pristinely white despite the mud.
"We're just digging around, there is no way of knowing where to look," he said. "There are three more bodies under the rubble over there. One seems to be a girl, no more than 16, dead, buried under that mud."
The hundreds of homes washed away in the neighborhood were turned inside out, their plumbing and electrical wires exposed. Children's clothes littered the earth, cars were tossed upside down into thickets. An eerie quiet prevailed as people searched for life. The sounds of digging, with sticks and hands, were occasionally punctuated by shouts as another corpse was located.
Conceicao Salomao, a doctor coordinating relief efforts at a makeshift refuge inside a gymnasium in central Teresopolis, said about 750 people were staying there Thursday and about 1,000 people had sought treatment in the past day. One danger she worried about was leptospirosis, a waterborne bacterial disease.
"The hospitals around here are overflowing. The army and navy are setting up field hospitals to help," she said.
"The worst is the feeling of impotence. We do what we can, but there are so many people."
Rio state's Civil Defense department said on its website that 222 people were killed in Teresopolis, 214 in nearby Nova Friburgo and 40 in neighboring Petropolis. It said about 14,000 people had been driven from their homes.
Another 37 people have died in floods and mudslides since Christmas in other parts of southeastern Brazil – 16 in Minas Gerais state north of Rio and 21 in Sao Paulo state.
Nineteen-year-old Geisa Carvalho and her mother were awakened at 3 a.m. Wednesday by a tremendous rumble as tons of muck slid down a sheer granite rock face onto their Teresopolis neighborhood of Caleme.
The power was out, but by lightning flashes they could see the torrent of mud and water rushing just a few feet (meters) from their home – and the remnants of their neighbors' houses that were swept far down a hill.
"We were like zombies, covered in mud, in the dark, digging and digging" Carvalho said.
"I don't even have the words to describe what I've seen," said the teen's mother, Vania Ramos. "A lot of our friends are dead or missing. There are people we may never find."
Carvalho and Ramos said they ran out of their home moments after the mudslide and joined neighbors in digging for survivors with bare hands and sticks. They quickly located a family of four who had died under the rubble of their home – and said another neighbor's 2-month-old baby was washed away in his crib and has yet to be found.
Nearly all the homes in their neighborhood were swept to the bottom of a hill.
Only a few rescuers had managed to hike to Caleme by Thursday and they only had shovels and machetes – not the heavier equipment needed to hunt for survivors. Residents said they had no food, water or medication, and many made the long walk for help to the center of Teresopolis, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio.
Morgues in the cities were full and bodies covered in blankets were laid out in streets.
Officials said the area hit by slides had seen 10 inches (26 centimeters) of rain in less than 24 hours. More rain is forecast through the weekend.
Survivors across the region were seen wading through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, trying to reach higher ground. Many tried desperately to find relatives, though phone service was out in the region and many people were still missing hours after the rain stopped.
The floods tore out most of the steep cobblestone road leading to the Campo Grande neighborhood, creating a ravine about 16 feet (5 meters) deep and 65 feet (20 meters) wide. In many areas, pedestrians were forced to walk through muddy, slippery jungle.
President Dilma Rousseff flew by helicopter over the region Thursday and the Health Ministry said it was sending seven tons of medications, enough to treat 45,000 people for a month.
Rousseff said the destruction was an act of God – but she also said people died because homes were illegally built in areas prone to slides.
"We saw areas in which mountains untouched by men dissolved," she told reporters in Rio after the flyover. "But we also saw areas in which illegal occupation caused damage to the health and lives of people."
Teresopolis Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek decreed a state of emergency, calling the calamity "the worst to hit the town." About 800 search-and-rescue workers from the state's civil defense department and firefighters were digging for survivors, but hopes were dimming.
The cost to rebuild the city of Teresopolis alone was estimated at $60 million, said the city's civil defense secretary, Flavio Luiz Castro in a report carried by the Terra news portal website.
The federal government said it was making available more than $400 million to the states affected by the rains, and officials said they would work closely with Rio de Janeiro state authorities to provide support.
Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks and Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.