Rescuers in boats and aircraft raced against the clock Sunday to help isolated people in Brazil’s mountainous southeast after storms and heavy rains killed at least 23 people, officials said, while a 4-year-old girl was rescued after more than 16 hours under mud.

The deluge pounded the states of Rio de Janeiro and Espirito Santo, where authorities described a chaotic situation due to flooding. Espirito Santos’ state government said Sunday that the death toll had risen to 15 as rescuers advanced, while almost 5,000 people were forced out of their homes because of the weather, the Associated Press reported.

The most affected municipality is Mimoso do Sul, a town of almost 25,000 inhabitants located in the south of Espirito Santo. Thirteen deaths in Espirito Santo were reistered in Mimoso do Sul, according to the AP.

State Governor Renato Casagrande described the situation as “chaotic,” saying that so far it has not been possible to assess the damage in some of the more isolated areas, with fears the toll could yet rise.

At least eight people have been killed in the neighboring state of Rio de Janeiro, officials said, most of them caused by landslides.

Four of the deaths in Rio state occurred when the storm caused a house to collapse in the city of Petropolis, around 45 miles inland from the capital.

Nicelio Goncalves opens the fridge at his flooded home after heavy rains in Duque de Caxias, Brazil, Sunday, March 24, 2024. / Credit: Bruna Prado / AP

Nicelio Goncalves opens the fridge at his flooded home after heavy rains in Duque de Caxias, Brazil, Sunday, March 24, 2024. / Credit: Bruna Prado / AP

Search teams rescued a 4-year-old girl buried in mud for more than 16 hours there. She was pulled alive from the mud, although her father was found dead next to her. A neighbor told AFP that the man had “heroically protected the girl with his body,” which is why she survived.

Rescue teams said the same, the Associated Press reported. The teams had to stop their work on Friday night because of risks of new landslides in the region, and her father died as a house was knocked to the ground, according to AP. Three more people died in the same place.

“My son was a warrior, he spent all that time there and saved his little daughter,” Roberto Napoleão, the grandfather of the 4-year-old girl, told journalists, AP reported. “You can’t imagine what it is like to lose a son. It hurts so much.”

The deluge came as Brazil, South America’s largest country, suffers through a recent string of extreme weather events, which experts say are more likely to occur due to climate change.

Such environmental tragedies “are intensifying with climate change,” President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, adding that thousands had been left homeless by the storm.

He expressed sympathy for the victims, and said his government was working with state and local authorities to “protect, prevent and repair flood damage.”

Around 90 people have been rescued since Friday, according to a bulletin from an emergency committee comprising Rio government and civil defense officials.

Images on local media showed rivers of water, mud and debris rushing down slopes in picturesque Petropolis, which in February 2022 saw at least 241 deaths from another catastrophic storm.

Dozens of soldiers and firefighters, aided by dogs, worked Saturday in the pouring rain. Part of the cemetery had been washed away, an AFP team in the town also saw, with further landslides still a risk.

In Mimoso do Sul, a fire truck was seen being dragged down a street by currents, while images released Saturday by the state fire department showed entire neighborhoods under water, with only the roofs of houses visible.

The National Institute of Meteorology had predicted a severe storm, particularly in Rio, with rainfall of almost 8 inches a day from Friday through Sunday. Normally, the area receives 5 1/2 inches of rain in all of March.

Rio authorities had declared an administrative holiday on Friday as the storm approached and urged people to stay home.

The storm follows a record heat wave, when humidity helped send the heat index soaring above 62 degrees Celsius, or 143 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brazil has veen vulnerable to catastrophic rains and flooding before. Last September, flooding from a cyclone in southern Brazil washed away houses, trapped motorists in vehicles and swamped streets in several cities, killing almost 40 people and leaving 2,300 homeless.

In 2022, flooding and landslides triggered by torrential rain killed more than 100 people in northeastern Brazil.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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