With what few possessions they can carry, families are streaming down the slopes of the hilly neighborhood of Alto da Serra, many in tears, fleeing the devastation left by deadly landslides in the Brazilian city of Petropolis.
Their humble neighborhood was one of the hardest hit by Tuesday’s storms, which in a matter of hours dumped a month of rain over this scenic tourist town, triggering flash floods and mudslides violently gushing through the town.
“It’s devastating. We could never have imagined something like this,” says a fleeing resident, Elisabeth Lourenco, holding two bags in which she stuffed some clothes as emergency services ordered everyone in the area to evacuate.
“When the rain fell most heavily, a huge amount of mud came down from the slope and some tree branches fell on my house,” says the 32-year-old manicurist, on the verge of tears.
Nearby is a scene of utter chaos. A gigantic swath of mound is covered in mud and strewn with the remains of shattered houses.
Authorities say the disaster has killed at least 104 people across the city.
There are fears that the death toll, which rose steadily on Wednesday, could rise further as rescuers continue to dig through the mud and ruins.
The residents watch the rescue operation in disbelief, shuddering at the deafening flight of the helicopters hovering above them.
“I was eating when the storm started. My brother came in and said, ‘We have to get out of here, the hill is collapsing,’ said Jeronimo Leonardo, 47, whose house sits on the edge of the area swept away by the landslide.
‘Up to our waist’
Residents of Alto da Serra have been evacuated to a church that sits atop another hill nearby.
From the plaza outside the small blue building, they can see the disaster area through the fog.
Dozens of families swarm through the church, lugging their belongings in bags.
Outside, volunteers unload a truckload of bottled water, while others search donated clothing.
“Can I have some shoes?” asks a barefoot little boy, his clothes smeared with mud.
Inside are mattresses on the floor.
“We started taking people in as soon as the tragedy started Tuesday night. We receive about 150 to 200 people, including many children,” says Father Celestino, pastor.
Yasmin Kennia Narciso, a 26-year-old school teacher, sits on a mattress to nurse her nine-month-old baby.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” she says.
She tells how she fled around 11 p.m. with her two daughters.
“We tried to leave earlier, but there were boulders all over the path and everything was under water. We were up to our waists in water. We had no choice but to wait for it to go down,” she says.
She adds that she is still waiting for news about several neighbors.
“An elderly lady and her three grandchildren who lived just above us were buried in the mud.”
Survivors know they will likely have to wait a long time to hear if and when they can return home – for those who still have homes left.