600 Missing in Devastating Brazil Floods

A boy stands next to a damaged car after heavy flooding in Agua Preta, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Tuesday, June 22, 2010. Brazilian rescuers continue searching for 600 people declared missing after heavy rains hit two states. AP/Guga Matos, JC Imagem

Rescuers searched Wednesday for 600 people declared missing after torrential floods ripped through cities in northeastern Brazil. The death toll rose to 44 after three bodies were found overnight.

The easing of rains gave soldiers and other rescuers the chance to reach some isolated towns by boat and helicopter. Heavy machinery was used to remove destroyed homes, while search dogs scoured areas where survivors or more bodies might be found, according to the civil defense department of Alagoas state.

A fire department spokeswoman in Maceio, the capital of Alagoas, said there were no reports of survivors found - but also nothing yet to indicate the missing were dead. She spoke on condition of anonymity, per department rules.

On Tuesday, Civil Defense officials said they believed most of the missing were safe - just unable to notify relatives of their status because there was no electricity and phones were knocked out.

Massive storms last week dumped a month's worth of water on parts of Alagoas and neighboring Pernambuco state, near the point where Brazil juts farthest east into the Atlantic. Some small towns were nearly destroyed by the flooding.

Roads were erased by flooding and bridges torn in pieces, hampering search and rescue efforts and making aid delivery more difficult. The federal Transportation Ministry announced emergency funds of $40 million to begin immediate repairs.

But in the city of Palmares, residents complained of no support.

"I lost everything. I and my four sons don't have a home. The little one, 4 years old, broke his arm in a current when he was thrown against a wall," Ana Claudia da Silva, washing mud from her clothes in a public plaza, told the O Globo newspaper. "All I have today is this umbrella, a bucket and dirty clothes."

Mechanic Ronaldo Claudino, who took six families into his home, told the newspaper that the only effort at support he saw in Palmares were two tanker trucks carrying fresh water - but they did not stop for thirty citizens in his neighborhood.

"We don't have anything to eat, to drink. We don't even have money," he said. "And, if we had it, there would not be anything to buy."

In the city of Uniao dos Palmares, where 500 people are reported missing, shop owners dug mud out of their buildings and many structures were destroyed.

"We've been through other floods, but we've never had anything even close to this," Maria Rodrigues, who owns a butcher shop, told the O Jornal newspaper as she surveyed a thick layer of mud and debris in her store.

At least 120,000 people were driven from their homes by the rains, but many found shelter in schools, churches or with family members.

The federal government announced it was sending $56 million in food, medicine and other aid, and Air Force planes had already delivered about 10 tons of supplies to some of the worst-hit areas, officials said.

But residents said little aid had yet reached Uniao dos Palmares.

"We're going hungry," housewife Deise de Andrade told O Jornal. "Yesterday we had to pick food out of the mud to give it to my sons. We're eating mud."

The Civil Defense said in a statement that 29 deaths had been reported so far in Alagoas, while 15 were reported dead in Pernambuco.

In May 2009, flooding in the same areas killed at least 44 people and displaced 380,000.
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