Teresopolis. As night fell, barefoot volunteers dragged a generator and stadium lights into a town cemetery, where nearly 200 freshly dug graves lay open like wounds in the red clay soil, waiting for the hundreds killed by torrential rains.
Funerals had been held throughout the day as a light rain persisted: a sister laying her brother to rest, a man burying his 1-year-old niece in a small white casket, a mother who cried her 9-year-old son’s name repeatedly as he was lowered into the earth.
Small, handmade white crosses identified only by numbers — the details would have to come later — dotted the desolate, sodden hilltop.
Dozens more funerals will come and 300 more graves will be dug today, said Vitor da Costa Soares, a city worker in charge of the cemetery.
“We’ll make room. We have to. We’ll stay up here until midnight if we can, and we’ll be here again at 6 a.m.,” he said.
At least 514 people have been confirmed dead after heavy rains unleashed landslides before dawn on Wednesday, burying people as they slept. Survivors started digging for friends and relatives with their bare hands, kitchen utensils, whatever they could find as they waited for help in remote neighborhoods perched precariously on steep, washed-out hillsides.
In the remote Campo Grande neighborhood of Teresopolis, now accessible only by a perilous eight-kilometer hike through mud-slicked jungle, family members pulled the lifeless bodies of loved ones from the muck. They carefully laid the corpses on dry ground and covered them with blankets.
Flooding and landslides are common in Brazil when the summer rains come, but this week’s slides were among the worst in recent memory. These disasters tend to punish the poor, who often live in makeshift housing on the steep hillsides, with little or no foundations. But even the rich did not escape the damage in Teresopolis this week, where large homes were washed away.
“I have friends still lost in all of this mud,” said Carlos Eurico, a resident of Campo Grande, as he motioned to a sea of destruction behind him. “It’s all gone. It’s all over now. We’re putting ourselves in the hands of God.”
Resident Nilson Martins, 35, held the only thing pulled out alive since dawn: a pet rabbit that had somehow remained pristinely white despite the mud.
“We’re just digging around,” he said. “There are three more bodies under the rubble over there. One seems to be a girl, no more than 16, dead, buried under that mud.”
Hundreds of homes were washed away, turned inside out — their plumbing and electrical wires exposed. Children’s clothes littered the earth, cars were tossed upside down into thickets.
An eerie quiet prevailed as people searched for life. The sounds of digging, with sticks and hands, were occasionally punctuated by shouts as another corpse was located.