RIO DE JANEIRO – RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Officials scrambled Tuesday to get food and medical aid to two flood-hit Brazilian states where torrents of water ripped through towns, killing at least 41 people and driving 120,000 from their homes.
Floodwaters toppled bridges and cut roads to dozens of cities. The Civil Defense department of Alagoas state received reports from local officials of 600 people missing in the chaos, but suggested most were not in danger.
"We think the number missing is much, much smaller," said Cpl. Edward Rocha, with the Alagoas Civil Defense.
The heavy rains started last week and within two days dumped a month's worth of water on areas of Alagoas and neighboring Pernambuco state. Some small towns were nearly destroyed by the flooding.
There was light, scattered rain on Tuesday afternoon in the flooded areas, and more isolated showers were expected throughout the week.
Officials touring the hardest-hit regions near the city of Uniao dos Palmares in Alagoas said it looked like a tsunami had hit.
"I lost everything from one hour to the next," Nelito Sousa, a 32-year-old bricklayer, told the O Jornal newspaper. "The water came quickly and knocked down house after house."
Schools in Uniao dos Palmares and other areas were being used to house the homeless, with entire families divvying up small areas of classrooms, gymnasiums and hallways. Children slept shoulder-to-shoulder on muddy mattresses.
Officials said that 29 deaths had been reported so far in Alagoas, while 12 were reported dead in Pernambuco. At least 73,000 people in Alagoas were driven from their homes; 40,000 were homeless in Pernambuco.
Officials were concerned about the spread of disease. Angela Auto, a doctor in Uniao dos Palmares, said children were beginning to come down with the flu because of cold, damp conditions.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said $56 million in aid was being released to send medicine and food to the flooded areas.
At least 200 soldiers were sent to Alagoas to help in the search for survivors and clean up. They were only able to reach the destroyed towns by boat and helicopter.
"A field hospital has already been setup. Now, we'll do a logistical survey to reduce the effects of the damage," Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said after meeting with Silva.
In May 2009, flooding in the same areas killed at least 44 people and displaced 380,000.
Teotonio Filho, governor of Alagoas, told journalists that city planning and construction must ensure that future floods do less damage.
"Houses cannot be built so close to the rivers. This is an old tradition that comes from a time when there was no electricity or water supply, so people had to live on riverbanks," he said. "With modern technology, there is no need to build in such risky areas."
Filho said he would meet with the mayors of affected areas to ensure that master plans for rebuilding the towns met stricter safety standards.
Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.