BRAZIL is grappling with its worst natural disaster in more than four decades, a calamitous collapse of rain-soaked hillsides near Rio that has killed nearly 400 people.
The disaster zone is a mountainous area just north of Rio de Janeiro known as the Serrana.
Freakish storms there on Wednesday dumped the equivalent of a months’ rain in just a few hours, sending mudslides and fierce torrents slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.
At least 378 people died, according to local officials and media in the worst affected towns of Novo Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis.
The death toll was expected to rise further as rescuers arrived on Thursday in remote hamlets, many cut off to all but helicopter access.
“One woman tried to save her children but her two-month-old baby was carried away by a torrent like a doll,” sobbed Angela, a 55-year-old resident of Teresopolis who saw the destruction.
Tropical rains common at this time of year intensified unimaginably as a cold front moved in, unleashing the tragedy before dawn, while families slept in their homes.
“In eight hours… it rained as much as for the entire month,” said Paulo Canedo, a hydrologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
The deluge “caused avalanches of rocks and soil that carried everything down with them, picking up houses,” he said.
As weather forecasters warned of more rain in the hours and days ahead, rescuers and desperate residents dug through rubble and mud looking for survivors or bodies.
Local officials in Teresopolis said 161 people died there, while officials in Petropolis counted 36 dead.
Brazilian television said 168 people died in nearby Novo Friburgo, including three firemen engulfed by mud as they carried out a rescue.
Another 13 bodies were discovered on Thursday in a village called Sumidoro.
Churches and police stations were turned into makeshift morgues, the smell of decomposing corpses heavy in the warm air.
Firemen saved a six-month-old baby and the 25-year-old father buried in mud in each others’ arms. The father, Wellington, told the G1 news website his wife and mother-in-law died when mud swamped their home.
The scenes of crumbled towns and the stench of death, though, transformed the Serrana, a popular getaway for wealthy Rio residents drawn to cooler temperatures and its history as a vacation destination for 19th century nobility.
The disaster also provided the first big test for Rousseff, who took power on January 1.
Her government has released $US470 million ($A473.2 million) in initial emergency aid and sent seven tonnes of medical supplies.
But her failure to make any public statement or emotional display immediately following the catastrophe contrasted with the style of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who cultivated a gruff and gregarious father image.
The fatalities made the disaster the worst since March 1967, when mudslides killed 300 people in a coastal town called Caraguatatuba, Brazilian media said.
Brazil recorded 473 deaths for all of last year from heavy rains.