Teresopolis: Brazil staggered Friday under the worst natural disaster it has ever seen, as it counted nearly 500 dead from mudslides this week near Rio de Janeiro.
By late Thursday, 480 bodies had been collected in the aftermath of the disaster that struck the mountainous Serrana region just north of Rio the day before, according to officials.
That surpassed an estimated death toll of 300 to 430 suffered in 1967, when mudslides crashed through a coastal town called Caraguatatuba that was "up until now seen as the biggest (natural disaster) in Brazil," the news website G1 said.
It was feared more bodies were yet to be discovered as rescuers finally arrived in villages cut off because of destroyed roads and bridges in the region.
Efforts to locate survivors and bodies were taken under the risk of further mudslides, as rain continued to fall on the waterlogged region, making it even more unstable.
"It`s very overwhelming. The scenes are very shocking," President Dilma Rousseff said after visiting the area.
She pledged "strong action" by her government, which has already released 470 million dollars in initial emergency aid and sent seven tons of medical supplies.
The catastrophe was seen as her first big test since taking power two weeks ago, taking over from her popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Storms early Wednesday dumped the equivalent of a month`s rain in just a few hours before dawn, sending mudslides slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.
The worst affected towns were Teresopolis, which recorded 223 deaths, Novo Friburgo, with 201 deaths, and Petropolis, with 39 deaths. Another 17 fatalities were registered in the village of Sumidouro.
The toll of dead from this one disaster was higher than the 473 rain-related deaths recorded for all of Brazil over the span of 2010.
Churches and police stations were turned into makeshift morgues, the smell of decomposing corpses heavy in the warm air. Thousands of survivors took refuge in shelters.
Outside one morgue in Teresopolis, crowds looked at photos of the dead, searching for loved ones.
"I can`t go inside. I don`t have courage to," said one woman, Ana Maria, 40.
"You have no idea how hard it is to see the bodies of so many children... It`s horrible," one fireman there told AFP.
Elsewhere in the town, in a gymnasium, hundreds of people left homeless by the calamity sat around on mattresses, still in shock, some injured.
Edmar Da Rosa, a 44-year-old laborer whose face was badly lacerated, looked lost and unable to comprehend the deaths of family members.
He said a retaining wall fell on part of his house that he shared with his wife, three children and a grandson.
"My wife died. My grandson ended up dying. And the others are hurt," he said.
A few meters (feet) away, 59-year-old Joao de Lima clutched a doll with desolation written on his face.
"I lost my four daughters and everything I had," he said softly.