Brazil floods claim 99 lives, officials send aid

Penguins rescued off the coast of Rio de Janeiro by the Brazilian Coast Guard are seen at the Niteroi Zoo in Rio de Janeiro, Friday, July 18, 2008. According to officials, over 400 baby penguins have been found dead on the state's shores over the past two months. While large numbers of penguins arrive on Rio de Janeiro's beaches every year, swept to sea by strong ocean currents from the Strait of Magellan, this year is seeing higher numbers and more dead penguins than usual. (AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes)
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NAVEGANTES, Brazil (AP) -- Brazil rushed aid Wednesday to nearly 80,000 people driven from their homes by rain-triggered mudslides and floods that have killed at least 99 people, while helicopter crews searched for families isolated by floodwaters.

Eight cities in southern Brazil with nearly 100,000 people remained cut off by flooding. Helicopters - some provided by the government, others donated by businesses - have rescued more than 1,000 people.

"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.

In the state of Santa Catarina, weekend downpours dumped as much water on the area as it usually receives in four months, cutting residents off from electricity, drinking water and food.

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 99 people, with at least 30 others missing. It said 80,000 people had been 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 hardest-hit city was Blumenau, where 20 people died because of mudslides. 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.

A pipeline rupture cut off natural gas to Santa Catarina state, prompting shortages of cooking gas and fuel for cars. Gas was also cut off to the neighboring state of Rio Grande do Sul that borders Argentina and Uruguay.


Associated Press Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.

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