© Paulo Cezar / AP People stand by the bodies of mudslide victims after heavy rain in the neighborhood of Caleme in Teresopolis, Brazil on Wednesday
Torrential summer rains tore through Rio de Janeiro state's mountains, killing at least 140 people in 24 hours, Brazilian officials said Wednesday. Rescuers using heavy machinery, shovels and bare hands struggled to dig through tons of mud and debris in a search for survivors.

In Teresopolis, a town 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio, flash floods tossed cars into trees and mudslides poured tons of red earth over houses below. At least 114 died, according to a local Civil Defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to release the information. She added that 10 inches (26 centimeters) of rain fell on the town during 24 hours.

Survivors waded through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, trying to reach higher ground. Flood water continued to flow down the mountains, though rains had stopped.

"I've lived here 25 years and I've never seen anything like it," Teresopolis citizen Manoel Rocha Sobrinho told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. "I live on high ground and when I looked below, I only saw a sea of mud. Most people saved themselves by climbing trees."

With the new disasters, nearly 2000 people have died since Christmas across the southeastern portions of the country.

The mayor of Teresopolis decreed a state of emergency, calling the calamity "the worst to hit the town." About 800 search and rescue workers from the state's civil defense department and firefighters dug for survivors.

© Paulo Ceza / TV Globo via AP A mudslide in Teresopolis, Brazil, is seen Wednesday.
"There was no saying what would collapse. Rich people's homes, poor people's homes. Everything was destroyed," Fernanda Carvalho, 27, a house cleaner, told Globo TV.

In neighboring Petropolis, 18 people were confirmed dead by the city's mayor.

The death toll in the region is expected to rise as firefighters reach remote valleys and steep mountainsides where neighborhoods were destroyed, said Jorge Mario Sedlacek, the mayor of Teresopolis. About 1,000 there were left homeless.

"This is the largest catastrophe in the history of this town," said Sedlacek in an interview with Globo TV.

Eight people died in the neighboring mountain town of Nova Friburgo, including four firefighters who were engaged in the rescue effort, according to a statement by Rio de Janeiro state's civil defense authorities. One fire truck was hit by a landslide, and three firefighters remained missing Wednesday.

An elderly couple have died in Petropolis, also in Rio's Serra dos Orgaos mountains.

Heavy rainfall also caused havoc earlier in Minas Gerais state, where 16 people died in the last month and scores of communities are in a state of emergency.

In Sao Paulo, flooding paralyzed main thoroughfares in the capital city since Sunday and 21 people died in collapsed homes, mudslides and flooding throughout the state.

Rio state Gov. Sergio Cabral called on the navy to lend helicopters to firefighters working as rescuers.

"We mourn the loss of lives in this tragedy caused by the rain," said Cabral in a statement.

The storm ended Wednesday morning, but the water-logged terrain remains unstable and a threat to communities built on the steep hillsides.

Intense summer rain often causes landslides and sudden flooding across Brazil, threatening especially the slums often precariously built on steep mountainsides.

Last April, 214 people died when heavy rain unleashed a mudslide, swallowing 40 homes in a hillside shantytown.