NAVEGANTES, Brazil – Hungry survivors looted supermarkets and emergency crews tried to get aid to nearly 80,000 people driven from their homes Wednesday, as rain-spawned mudslides and floods killed at least 97 people and isolated cities in southern Brazil.
Amid mounting misery in the disaster zone, at least 20 people were arrested for ransacking a supermarket in the hard-hit city of Itajai, where many streets were still submerged following torrential weekend rains, state media said.
Besides food, the looters tried to cart away plasma TVs and a refrigerator, the Agencia Brasil news service reported.
Nearly 100,000 people remained cut off by flooding in eight cities in Santa Catarina state, civil defense officials said in a statement.
Helicopters — some provided by the government, others donated by businesses — rescued 1,100 people, authorities said.
"The cities in the south still cannot be reached, it's going to take some time," Army Lt. Col. Jose Henrique Ruffo told Globo TV.
The weekend downpours dumped as much water on the area as it usually receives in months, cutting residents off from electricity, drinking water and food. The water shortage was so extreme that civil defense officials advised people to drink swimming pool water after boiling it for 10 minutes.
State Gov. Luiz Henrique da Silveira flew with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva over areas devastated by floodwaters, and said Silva was "shocked when he saw the Dantesque spectacle below him."
"This is the worst environmental calamity we have ever faced," Silva told reporters after the fly over.
Civil defense officials said mudslides and floods killed at least 97 people, down from the 99 reported earlier after two could not be confirmed. As many as 30 were missing, and more than 78,000 people were driven from their homes.
Itajai civil defense worker Gilvan Muniz told the Agencia Estado news service that residents of the flooded riverside city were seeing much of the damage for the first time as floodwater receded on Wednesday.
"We endured two moments of horror: when we saw the water rise and then when it receded and we saw the destruction," he said.
New reports emerged of looting and price gouging as food and supplies ran short in isolated towns.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said in a statement that two of its nine stores in Santa Catarina state were closed because of the floods, and that one of them was ransacked on Tuesday.
Thousands of civil defense workers, troops and police were trying to deliver aid, and about 3 tons of medicine, food, water and other supplies already were distributed.
The worst-hit city was the town of Ilhota along the banks of the Itajai River, where 29 people died after waters rose 30 feet above normal. Soldiers there were trying to reach 200 people cut off since Saturday.
Twenty people died in nearby Blumenau because of mudslides, and half of the population in the renowned tourist destination of nearly 300,000 had no electricity.
Officials said it still could take days to reopen many of the region's slide-blocked highways.
Silva authorized nearly $870 million in emergency relief because of the disaster, with nearly half of it destined to repair roads, fund military rescue operations, repair damaged ports and provide public health assistance.
The government was was sending food, but shortages prompted some hungry people to loot stores of spoiled food after they could find nothing else, Itajai civil defense director Gilvan Muniz told the Web site of the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.
"It's very sad to see people looting food so they don't die of hunger," he said.
Natural gas — a key source of energy used to cook food, power cars and provide electricity to factories — remained cut off to Santa Catarina state because of a pipeline ruptured by a mudslide.
Gas was also cut off to the neighboring state of Rio Grande do Sul that borders Argentina and Uruguay, and a key port for meat exports in Itajai was also shut down after it sustained major flood damage.