BRANQUINHA, Brazil - Nearly the entire population of a small village of ceramic artisans and descendants of runaway slaves survived massive flooding by clinging to two jack fruit trees and praying through a rainy night, officials said Thursday.

About 50 people from Muquem — once a "quilombo," or refuge for slaves who ran away centuries ago — raced to the two 65-foot-tall (20-meter-tall) trees as the Mundau River burst from its banks late last Friday.

"It was a true miracle," said Adriano de Araujo Jorge, president of the Alagoas state environmental agency, who arrived at the village to deliver aid Thursday. "The jack fruit trees are strong — most of the surrounding trees had fallen."

He said residents recounted the terrifying 18 hours they spent in the trees, watching as waters rose around them and carried off their homes and belongings.

"They said it was the worst experience of their lives and they were certain they would die," Jorge told The Associated Press by telephone. "But they're extremely religious. They prayed through the night and said they knew only Jesus Christ could save them."

Jorge said it was a bright spot in an otherwise horrific week for Brazil's northeast, where floods have killed at least 45 people, driven 120,000 from their homes, wiped out 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometres) of roads and downed at least 80 bridges.

Elsewhere in the area, Brazilians stranded for days returned to ruined homes in riverside towns that have been reduced to twisted piles of rubble and mud.

Brazilian authorities said 135 people remain unaccounted for — down from 607 the previous day.

"It's a relief. We knew the number would come down," said Alagoas state fire department spokesman Rafael Felipe. "Now we have to focus on finding the rest of those missing."

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew over the hard-hit areas Thursday.

Speaking in the city of Palmares in Pernambuco state, Silva said he had seen photos and video of the damage before arriving, but none showed "the gravity of the situation we saw when we took to the streets of these cities."

"We have the political, human and moral obligation to help rebuild what has been destroyed," he said.

Silva's team said they were focusing first on getting food, water and medical supplies to flood victims.

Erenice Guerra, Silva's chief of staff, said $153 million in emergency funds were being released to the two states where the flooding occurred.

More funding would be on its way, she added, along with a credit line of $560 million for reconstruction.

Soldiers, firefighters and other workers were scrambling to clean up the flooded towns, increasing their efforts with a break in rains on Thursday. There are fears that disease will rapidly spread if cities remain sodden with mud, sewage and other waste.

Alagoas state officials said it was difficult to calculate the monetary value of the destruction, but an initial, conservative estimate put it at $450 million.

At least 19,000 houses will need to be rebuilt.

Maria Nascimento watched her house crumble under the weight of floodwaters in city of Rio Largo.

"In 10 minutes we lost what we had built in 10 years," Nascimento, 58, told O Globo.

She now shares a tent of black plastic in a central plaza of her town, where a thick layer of mud coats streets and houses were turned inside out, their contents strewn everywhere.

"I'm happy to be alive," she said, "but devastated to have lost almost everything."


Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.

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