RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Rescue workers raised the death toll from heavy Christmas Eve rains and mudslides in Rio de Janeiro state to 52 on Thursday and warned the number could still rise, as President Fernando Henrique Cardoso toured the disaster area.
"It breaks my heart," Cardoso told reporters during his visit to neighborhoods most devastated by the rains, pledging unspecified aid for the state as a "presidential urgency," but making clear its release was tied up in red tape.
As the skies cleared on Thursday, teams renewed efforts to dig through tonnes of mud, garbage and rubble, but officials said they were unlikely to find any survivors and warned the number of casualties could climb still higher.
"Today the rain stopped and we can work without exposing our personnel to risks of new mudslides," said Col. Joao Bosco, head of the state Civil Defense Department. "But, unfortunately, we only expect to recover dead bodies now."
Officials said a total of 52 bodies had been recovered and some 30 people still were unaccounted for.
Bosco added that the number of the missing could still rise or fall because Christmas festivities may have united more than the usual number of residents in some homes that collapsed or may have drawn them away to other, safe places.
Nearly all the victims were in mostly illegal hillside settlements, many of which were practically washed away by rains and mudslides, burying entire families in their flimsy homes under tonnes of thick brown mud and stones.
In Petropolis, a popular weekend retreat in the mountains near Rio where most deaths occurred, even sturdier middle class houses collapsed.
"In Petropolis they had one month's average rainfall in just a few hours. It was a record, a deluge," Bosco said, labeling the disaster "the worst this millennium in Brazil."
Television footage and newspaper photographs showed rescue workers in respirators unearthing bodies from mud under ruins that still bore Christmas decorations on what used to be walls.
In the tourist mecca of Rio, five people died in the infamous hillside "favela" shantytowns as their houses collapsed. On Wednesday, 20 evacuated houses in one favela crumbled as their residents watched in despair.
More than 1,000 people were left homeless in the state and hundreds were evacuated to schools, gymnasiums and churches where they were receiving food and clothes from donations as well as municipal and state government aid.
On the plains, a number of small towns and city districts remained flooded, while health services were on alert to prevent any outbreaks of disease after sewage and garbage mixed with rain water flooded the streets.
Meteorologists say there could be more light showers in the state on Thursday and Friday, while New Year's Eve could bring more torrential rains.
It was the worst natural disaster in the state since 1998, when 55 people died from a similar tragedy, Bosco said. In 1966, rains and mudslides killed over 100 people in the state.
Municipal and civil defense officials said the tragedy had yet again underscored the problem of unauthorized settling of poor families on hills where soil often slides during rains.
The torrential rains across Brazil have, at least, helped fill hydroelectric power plants' reservoirs, depleted by two years of drought that forced the government to introduce power rationing in June.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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