President Jair Bolsonaro called the widespread destruction "like scenes of war" after his helicopter flyover, and Pope Francis sent a message of condolences to the community.

Over 500 firefighters with helicopters, excavation machinery and sniffer dogs — helped by hundreds of volunteers — are searching for survivors.
Over 500 firefighters with helicopters, excavation machinery and sniffer dogs — helped by hundreds of volunteers — are searching for survivors. (AFP)

A desperate search has been underway for people buried by a deluge of mud that swept through the Brazilian city of Petropolis.

A total of 136 bodies have been retrieved to date, according to civil defence officials, in the normally scenic tourist town some 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Rio de Janeiro.

"We saw enormous destruction, like scenes of war," President Jair Bolsonaro told reporters after his helicopter flyover on Friday.

He had headed straight for Petropolis on his return to Brazil after an official visit to Russia and Hungary.

More than 500 firefighters with helicopters, excavation machinery and sniffer dogs are continuing the search, even as hopes dwindle of finding survivors after three days.

Officials said late on Friday that 218 people were still missing, some of whom are likely to be among the 57 bodies that are still unidentified.

READ MORE: Brazil mudslide death toll climbs to 110, 134 missing

Homes swept away

Bolsonaro said people had the right to criticise, but "we cannot predict everything that will happen in 8.5 million square kilometres" (3.3 million square miles)  —  the surface area of Brazil.

"This is not the first time a tragedy has happened here," said the president, adding that "we will do our part".

Petropolis and the surrounding region were previously hit by severe storms in January 2011, when more than 900 people died in flooding and landslides.

On Tuesday, the streets of the city were turned into torrential rivers of mud that swept away homes, cars and trees following the heaviest rains to hit the region since 1932.

The alarm bells rang once again on Friday morning in areas at high risk of landslides in the city of 300,000 people.

"There is a risk of landslides...be careful, move to a safe place," came the message over loudhailers amid renewed heavy rain in the early morning, which later subsided.

Pope Francis sent a message of condolences on Friday, and assured the community in a statement from the Vatican of his "participation in the grief of all those who are bereaved or who have been deprived of their possessions."

Tuesday's was the latest in a series of deadly storms — which experts say are made worse by climate change — to hit Brazil in the past three months.

READ MORE: Death toll from Brazil mudslides rises as rescue efforts continue

Source: TRTWorld and agencies