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Brazil flood victims wade home; death toll at 99

Flood victims waded through waist-deep water into mud-filled houses Thursday in a devastated part of southern Brazil where thousands lined up for government food handouts.
Brazil Flooding
A woman gathers belongings as a couple paddles past  in Itajai, southern Brazil, on Thursday. Eight cities in southern Brazil remained cut off by flooding.Ricardo Moraes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Flood victims waded through waist-deep water into mud-filled houses Thursday in a devastated part of southern Brazil where neighbors set up patrols to keep looters away and lined up by the thousands for government food handouts.

As waters from torrential rains receded after causing at least 99 deaths, returning residents hurled soaked furniture and damaged electronic goods into the streets of this coastal city at the mouth of the swollen Itajai-Acu River.

Hunger and thirst were so widespread in the city of 170,000 that police were ordered to let residents take food and water from stores because they were "driven by despair to steal," said state public safety spokesman Joao Carlos Santos.

Officers instead targeted thieves who paddled rickety canoes to loot abandoned homes.

'Still a lot of people buried'
The official death toll from the rains in Santa Catarina state rose Thursday to 99 from 97 a day earlier. Mudslides killed most of the victims, and 19 people were officially missing. Authorities said the death toll eventually could climb as high as 150.

"There are still a lot of people buried under tons of mud, which slid down mountainsides like spilled chocolate pudding," said Santa Catarina public security chief Ronaldo Benedeti.

Eight cities that had been isolated since last weekend were relinked to civilization as workers cleared mounds of earth and trees that blocked highways. But nearly 79,000 people remained displaced — 41,000 of them in Itajai.

Drinking water was scarce in the disaster zone and public health officials feared a possible outbreak of leptospirosis, a sometimes fatal disease spread by exposure to water contaminated with the urine of infected animals. Dozens of chickens roosted on the roofs of flooded homes in Itajai as residents waded below, trying to salvage their belongings.

Officials said there was a risk of more deadly mudslides because the earth is still saturated by a continuing drizzle. Forecasters said the sun may not emerge again until Sunday.

"We're just praying for God to help us soon because it will us take months to get back to normal," said Alexandre de Carvalho as he waited in a line of 400 people to get beans and rice handed out at a local fire station.

Many arrests for looting
Like many in Itajai, the 19-year-old furniture repairman saw his house flooded. After taking refuge for days with relatives who had a home on high ground, de Carvalho returned to his neighborhood to help form a civilian looting watch.

"We're all guarding our houses, because there are a lot of robberies," Carvalho said. "They're breaking in and taking whatever they can grab."

Twenty-three people were arrested for looting and breaking into homes, but police only targeted suspects who took alcohol, plasma TVs and other nonfood items, Santos said.

Local newspapers on Thursday published photos of men up to their waists in debris-filled water gathering goods floating outside flooded supermarkets.

The Brazilian government on Thursday airlifted supplies to hard-hit areas of Santa Catarina while trucks loaded with donated food and clothes began rolling over roads that earlier had been blocked by mud.

Some residents said the aid was overdue.

"We need more medicine, food and clothes," Carvalho said. "We're really suffering and there's a lot of people who have nothing."

Floods also affected eight towns and cities in the coastal state of Espirito Santo, prompting local authorities to declare states of emergency and warn poor residents living in hillside slums to abandon their homes or risk being swept away by mudslides.