Ankle-deep in muck, Brazilian domestic worker Patricia da Silva picks her way through the debris and mud of what used to be her home, trying to rescue what she can of her belongings.

Da Silva, 31, had to flee with her two daughters Sunday at dawn when torrential rain in the southeastern beach resort of Sao Sebastiao, her hometown, triggered violent landslides -- one of which tore through her house in a crush of earth and floodwater.

"I'm devastated because of the destruction, but at the same time, happy we got out alive," she told AFP as she surveyed the muddy wasteland around her.

In a span of 24 hours, the record storm dumped more than twice a normal February's worth of rain on Sao Sebastiao, just as the town celebrated carnival, one of the peak periods of the tourism season.

Forty people were killed, according to the latest official death toll, with dozens still missing.

Da Silva's neighbors in the Juquehy neighborhood are trying to help her save what she can from the wreckage, trudging back and forth with wheelbarrows of orange-colored mud and remains of her family's possessions.

A gutted couch, the family's mattresses and the skeletons of a few chairs are piled by the street.

- Buried in the rubble -


The region's green hills bear gashes of brown mud, while dazed residents are still struggling to come to grips with the scale of their losses.

The landslides blocked key roads, making it difficult for rescue crews to arrive.

Michael Alves, a 30-year-old construction worker, resorted to digging his father and his father's wife out from the wreckage himself.

"The firefighters couldn't reach us," he says.

"So the whole family jumped in and started digging."

The only belongings he managed to save were a Bible and some kitchenware, he says.

- Cries for help -


Hundreds of residents have had to be evacuated from their homes, with gray skies threatening the possibility of more rain to come.

An Evangelical church provided beds for around 150 evacuees, mostly residents of a hillside district known as Morro do Pantanal.

The sanctuary is a labyrinth of mattresses, with donated food and clothing piled at the altar.

Finding shelter has not alleviated 28-year-old Marcia Cavalcante's anguish.

"We were at home when we heard this really loud noise and a family crying for help. They had been swept away by the current," she says, unable to contain her sobs.

"It was agonizing. We couldn't help them. We would have just been swept away ourselves."

The swirl of tragic stories circulating around the impromptu refuge includes that of a young couple and their two-year-old daughter.

A neighbor filmed the site of what used to be their house, near the top of Morro do Pantanal.

The images leave little room for hope: there is no trace of the house that once stood there, only splintered trees and mud.