Raging floods in northeastern Brazil have killed at least 41 people and left as many as 1,000 missing, officials said, while firefighters described entire towns being wiped off the map.
Dramatic television pictures showed survivors scrambling to rooftops to avoid being swept away, clinging desperately to lines of rope as rescuers in helicopters rushed to pluck them from the muddy floodwaters.
The death toll looked set to rise with more heavy rain forecast for today and the authorities giving estimates of the missing ranging from several hundred to 1,000.
"Up until the early afternoon we had 26 confirmed dead in Alagoas and more than 1,000 people missing," the Governor of the poor coastal state Teotonio Vilela Filho on Tuesday told government news wire Agencia Brasil.
"But we are worried because bodies are starting to appear on the beaches and the rivers." President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced yesterday that he would be back to overfly the area on Thursday, as Defense Minister Nelson Jobim has done, the official news agency Agencia Brasil reported.
Officials later raised the toll in Alagoas to 29, while a civil defense officials said another 12 fatalities were confirmed in the larger neighbouring state of Pernambuco. Almost 100,000 people in the two states were left without a home or forced to evacuate, while some towns were completely cut off as powerful torrents collapsed bridges and swamped roads and railway lines, officials said.
Rooftops and church bell towers were the only structures visible above massive brown expanses of floodwater that only looked set to rise in the coming days. Firefighters' spokesman said that entire towns had been "wiped off the map" after the Mundau river burst its banks in the town of Uniao dos Palmares in Alagoas.
In the separate town of Palmares in the neighbouring state of Pernambuco, a woman who lost her home sobbed as she told Globonews television, "It destroyed our city. It destroyed everything." Jose Mariano, whose house in nearby Cachanga was waterlogged, said, "It was really tough here. We had a refrigerator and an armoire at my brother's house for safe keeping and the water came in and just kept rising."
Five Air Force helicopters ferried aid to those stranded by the flooding, while a military plane also delivered some 14 tonnes of donated food, medicine, drinking water and mattresses. Lula held a crisis cabinet meeting that included ministers and the governors of the affected states.