TERESOPOLIS, Brazil — Brazil's army on Monday sent 700 soldiers to help throw a lifeline to desperate neighborhoods that have been cut off from food, water or help in recovering bodies since mudslides killed at least 665 people.
Troops have already set up at least one bridge in the mountain vacation city of Teresopolis, officials said, but at least 10 main highways remain blocked in the rugged area north of Rio where the slides hit, hampering efforts to move in the heavy machinery needed to begin massive clean up efforts and eventually dig out bodies stuck under tons of mud and debris.
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The troops plan to set up mobile bridges that can span 200 feet and are robust enough to support the hundreds of pieces of big equipment needed in clean up and recovery efforts.
Days of heavy rains unleashed tons of earth, rock and raging torrents of water down steep, forested mountainsides Wednesday, directly into towns that are weekend getaways for the Rio area.
Rio state's Civil Defense department said on its website Monday that the death toll reached 655 between the cities of Teresopolis, Nova Friburgo, Petropolis and Sumidouro.
Rescuers had yet to reach about 20 neighborhoods, though a break in rains and better visibility allowed about 12 helicopters to begin taking supplies and firefighters in, while shuttling injured survivors out.
But pilots said flying was still treacherous in the area full of jagged mountain peaks, where there are few safe landing zones and power lines are draped between peaks through seemingly clear space.
"These are the most challenging conditions I've flown in," said Adalberto Ortale, a helicopter pilot for Ibama, the enforcement branch of the Environment Ministry. "The majority of people doing the flying are not from here and you have to orient yourself on the fly."
In downtown Teresopolis, frustration and hopelessness was building. Hundreds of survivors remained uncertain of how they were going to be able to leave crowded shelters and restart their lives.
Eunice Peixoto de Souza, 57, said she was thankful for the shelter and the hot lunches served at the Teresopolis gymnasium where she has been staying for five days with three of her children and three grandchildren. But she has nowhere else to go, and the prospect of spending another week, or weeks, on the thin foam mattresses laid on the floor is hard to bear.
"We lost everything, and we can't pay rent," she said. "I want a place that will let the family stay together, but I haven't heard any word from the government yet."
One of her sons is still living in his home in a high-risk area. Peixoto de Souza wants him to leave, but knows he won't want to bring his children to the cramped gym.
"What can I tell him? Take them to live under a bridge?" she asked, upset. "We're waiting for some word from the government. I am certain that God will provide."
In Teresopolis, mayors from the three cities harded hit planned to begin coordinating reconstruction efforts, which have been roughly estimated at $1.2 billion dollars.
At least 5,000 new homes must be built for those who lost everything. Roads, bridges and commercial buildings need to be repaired or razed and replaced.
Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek of Teresopolis said that more than 2,000 tents were being brought in, each capable of sheltering up to 10 people. Teresopolis has more than 3,000 people who were made homeless by the slides.
Authorities also will map out and evacuate high-risk areas where residents are holding on to their homes, said Sedlacek.
"We know there are communities that are at immediate risk. The government is planning to remove those residents and place them in shelters or tents," he said.
Rali Oliveira da Silva, 35, spent several years building a home for his family in Cascata do Imbui, saving little by little for the cement, the bricks, the paint. The house was still standing Sunday, but its cement patio now hung precariously over a yawning precipice, the empty space left by a slide that killed most of his downhill neighbors.
Oliveira da Silva's home could be next. But he said he has no money to rent another place, much less buy land elsewhere and start over, so he's staying put for now.
"There is no financing for someone like me, and I can't afford to buy a home in town," he said. "What am I supposed to do? Move my family to a shelter? And then what?"
On Sunday, municipal, state and federal officials set up a center to register missing persons; began distributing 35,000 free cell phones donated by a telecommunications company; and announced immediate plans to relocate some 2,500 people housed at the Teresopolis gym to 18 smaller, better organized shelters at churches, warehouses and other spaces.
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