President Jair Bolsonaro takes an aerial trip of disaster zone after heavy rains tore through several urban neighbourhoods in the northeastern part of the country, leaving at least 91 people dead and dozens missing.

Bolsonaro says such tragedies happen and a country with the size of a continent would have its share of problems.
Bolsonaro says such tragedies happen and a country with the size of a continent would have its share of problems. (Reuters)

President Jair Bolsonaro has sent his condolences to the families of 91 people who died in torrential rains in northeastern Brazil, as rescue workers continued a grim search for victims.

Releasing an updated toll, authorities said 26 people remained missing in the region around the city of Recife, where days of downpours triggered flooding and landslides that swept away virtually everything in their path.

Bolsonaro posted a video on Twitter that showed him flying in a helicopter over a disaster zone where brown floodwater still inundated large areas and gashes of mud scarred hillsides where houses once stood.

"I tried to land, but the pilots' recommendation was that, given the instability of the soil, we could have an accident. So we decided against it," the far-right president told a news conference.

He recalled a string of devastating floods in Brazil that have killed hundreds of people in recent months, and which experts say are being aggravated by climate crisis.

"We send our condolences to the families. Our top priority is comforting the families and getting aid to the population," he said.

READ MORE: Death toll climbs from Brazil downpours as search continues

'Can't eat or sleep'

The force of the landslides ripped apart houses in neighbourhoods including Jardim Monteverde, a poor community just outside Recife.

Rescue workers have found more than 20 bodies buried in the mud that tore through the neighbourhood on Saturday, and said they expect to find more.

"I can't eat or sleep. It's just so much pain," said Maria Lucia da Silva, a 56-year-old resident whose neighbours' house was destroyed, killing 11 people. A 12th member of the family remains missing.

"I've lived here for 40 years. They were like my family. I watched a lot of them grow up," Da Silva told the AFP news agency, crying behind her sunglasses.

Dozens of emergency workers are still digging through the ocean of muck, as clean-up crews in yellow uniforms clear the streets, slowly working their way through the wreckage, an AFP photographer saw.

In just hours on Friday and Saturday, parts of Pernambuco received 70 percent of the rain they usually get in the entire month of May.

"We never saw so much rain fall in so little time," said 60-year-old retiree Mario Guadalupe.

"I saw the landslide happen. First part of the hill gave way, then it was just a tsunami of mud. It nearly took out my house."

Familiar tragedies

Such tragedies are becoming a familiar script in Brazil.

They tend to hit hardest in poor neighbourhoods, especially hillside favelas, or slums.

In February, 233 people were killed in floods and landslides in the southeastern city of Petropolis, in Rio de Janeiro state.

In January, torrential rains claimed at least 28 lives in southeastern Brazil, mostly in Sao Paulo state.

And in December, storms killed 24 people in the northeastern state of Bahia.

On that occasion, Bolsonaro –– who trails leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in polling ahead of elections in October –– faced criticism for not interrupting his year-end beach vacation to visit the disaster zone.

"Unfortunately these tragedies happen, a country the size of a continent has its share of problems," Bolsonaro said on Monday.

On the ground, many residents were angry.

"A lot of people lost everything –– even their lives. We're screaming for help. We need food, houses, clothing. So don't just come here to campaign. We need action," said Jardim Monteverde resident Jailson Gomes de Souza, 34.

Bolsonaro's government announced it has allocated $210 million in emergency and reconstruction funds for areas hit by the latest storms.

Meteorologists say the heavy rains lashing Brazil's northeast are the product of a typical seasonal phenomenon called "eastern waves" –– areas of atmospheric disturbance that move from Africa to Brazil's northeastern coastal region.

The region remains at "very high" risk for further floods, said the national disaster monitoring center, Cemaden.

"We urge people to respect the alerts issued by the authorities" and evacuate if necessary, said Regional Development Minister Daniel Ferreira.

READ MORE: Dozens killed in Brazil landslides and floods

Source: AFP