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Rescuers in the Sicilian city of Messina continued their search Saturday for survivors of mudslides caused by torrential rains that struck earlier this week. At least 20 people have been killed and hundreds have been left homeless.

The rainstorms that hit Messina in northeast Sicily unleashed rivers of mud. The mud swept away homes, cars and anything else in its path. Some people took refuge on roofs and were plucked to safety by helicopter, but dozens of people are still missing.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says the situation is extremely serious and there are concerns the death toll could rise to 50 or more. Rescuers with bulldozers and sniffer dogs continued their search for survivors Saturday. It has not stopped raining and officials say this is hampering efforts.

Messina Mayor Giuseppe Buzzanca says a desperate search continues under the collapsed buildings and rubble in the hope of finding someone still alive.

He added that his town has been cut off by rain and mud that has blocked roads and covered railway lines. He said the injured are being moved by sea and urged doctors, nurses and volunteers to go to the stricken area to provide assistance.

Residents in the area are in despair.

One woman says they are dying because the river of mud is in front of their homes. She adds that not enough is being done to help people affected by the mudslides. In addition they have been without electricity for two days.

The government in Rome meanwhile has declared a state of emergency for the area, freeing funds for relief and reconstruction.

Authorities here have acknowledged that deforestation and unregulated development were responsible for weakening the soil and contributed to the mudslides from Messina's surrounding hills and cliffs.