ITAJAI, Brazil — 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
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 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 at a local fire station.
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."