RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Flooding worsened through Brazil's normally arid northeastern region, forcing more than 200,000 people to flee their homes, many by canoes and rowboats, a civil defense official said Thursday.

At least 24 people drowned or were buried by mudslides or collapsing houses, according to unofficial reports.

Rain-swollen rivers overflowed and hit 175 cities and towns in eight of Brazil's 26 states, civil defense spokesman Silvio Reiner said by telephone from Brasilia, the capital, 745 miles northwest of Rio.

In northeastern Bahia state, 105,000 people were driven from their homes after more than two weeks of heavy rain, he said.

Worst hit was the historic city of Cachoeira, 930 miles northeast of Rio. The Paraguacu River overflowed and covered much of the city, considered a national historic monument for its 18th century Portuguese colonial houses and churches.

Many of the 20,000 residents evacuated their homes by small boats, taking whatever belongings they could carry. Police said looters broke into stores and houses by boat, entering through second-story windows.

In Minas Gerais state, south of Bahia, 26,170 people were driven from their homes and 6,417 houses were damaged or destroyed, Reiner said.

Schools and government buildings in many towns were converted into temporary shelters. Air Force planes flew emergency shipments of 200 tons of food, 5,000 blankets and 5,000 sleeping mats to the hardest-hit areas, he said.

The Health Ministry shipped a ton of medicine to combat typhoid fever, pneumonia and dysentery, he said.

Globo TV said floodwaters washed out a section of Highway 316, the main road between northern Para state and the northeast region. Interstate buses reportedly were forced to detour up to 600 miles.

The weather bureau forecast more rain in the next 48 hours, Reiner said.

The rains have nearly filled reservoirs, the government's northeastern regional electric company announced.