Devastating mudslides and floods have killed nearly 270 people in the mountainous area near Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian officials said, warning that the death toll was likely to rise.
Rescue operations in the area north of Rio known as the Serrana were suspended late Wednesday because of darkness and dangerous conditions.
Entire neighborhoods in the municipalities of Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis were swept away by rivers of mud and tumbling rocks.
At least three firemen were killed when they were engulfed in tons of mud as they tried to carry a rescue.
The full extent of the devastation however was unknown because communication and access to the stricken zone was made difficult after roads and bridges were destroyed, and telephone service was cut in some areas.
Officials said the disaster was the worst ever to befall the Serrana, a soaring, lush area that used to be a getaway for 19th-century Brazilian nobility and which is now a tourist spot especially for Rio residents during the current southern hemisphere summer.
“It’s a huge catastrophe, a major disaster,” the mayor of the worst-hit town of Teresopolis, Jorge Mario Sedlacek, told the GloboNews television station.
His town counted at least 130 deaths, according to information released by area firefighters late Wednesday.
Rio state deputy governor Luiz Fernando Pezao told the G1 news website that another 107 people died in nearby Nova Friburgo, including the firemen killed.
Petropolis, in the same region, suffered at least 30 deaths, most in the nearby district of Itaipava, though officials warned that the toll was expected to rise when rescue workers reach remote hamlets.
The Wednesday death toll reached at least 267, not including at least 13 people killed earlier in the week by the same storm in Sao Paulo.
At least as much rain water as the region usually sees in two or three weeks hit the Serrana before dawn on Wednesday, as residents were sleeping in their homes.
The downpour triggered mudslides and caused rivers to overflow, carrying away cars, homes and people.
Meteorologists blamed the extraordinary precipitation on a cold front that intensified the already heavy wet season southeast Brazil experiences every summer.
That cold front moved through Sao Paulo early in the week before moving on to Rio de Janeiro state. More rain was forecast in the coming days.
The calamity was the first natural disaster to be faced by Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, who took power less than two weeks ago.
Her government has released 420 million dollars in emergency aid to help the rain-hit region, and she was scheduled to fly over the disaster zone Thursday in a helicopter.
The health ministry announced it was also sending seven tonnes of medicine including antibiotics, blood pressure remedies, masks and syringes — enough to last 45,000 people a month.
The deadly downpour happened one year after mudslides killed more than 50 people in Angra dos Reis, another tourist area.
At least 473 people were killed in Brazil in 2010 due to heavy rains, the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper reported.