Break in rain allows Brazil to reach slide victims

Image: People use boards to cross over the wate
People use boards to cross over the water running along where the main street of Campo Grande neighbourhood used to be, after the devastation caused by the recent landslides of mud and rocks, in Teresopolis, some 100 km from Rio de Janiero, on Sunday. The Brazilian military took advantage of a break in the weather Sunday to send helicopters to remote areas near Rio hit by landslides and flooding that killed at least 610 people. Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A break in near-constant rain Sunday allowed Brazilian rescue helicopters to deliver desperately needed food and water to some of the neighborhoods buried under tons of earth in mudslides that killed more than 600 people.

Rain clouds lifted, allowing about a dozen helicopters to buzz around the craggy peaks of the emerald-green mountains in this area about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio de Janeiro.

"The priority is the rescue of people who are still isolated. We have to take advantage of this break in the weather to help people in these remote, collapsed areas," said Alexandre Aragon, head of the Brazilian National Security Force, which is aiding in the recovery.

The helicopters were not immediately being used to evacuate people from areas that are still at risk of more mudslides should rains return. Instead, they were concentrating on getting supplies to as many isolated areas as possible to keep people there alive.

The disaster hit in the early morning hours Wednesday, when days of heavy rains unleashed tons of earth, rock and raging torrents of water down steep mountainsides and directly into towns over an area of about 900 square miles (2,330 square kilometers). The known death toll stood at 626 people Sunday. Officials fear it will rise sharply as the remote areas are reached and more bodies found.

Anderson Correia de Oliveira, the local police commander, said there would be no miracle rescues of people buried under the mudslides after four days.

"There are no hopes of finding anybody alive," he said. "It's not like an earthquake — people trapped under things have been drowned. There are no air pockets."

Desperate survivors have complained of receiving no help and Brazil's government at all levels has come under criticism for the lack of speed in helping the victims.

But Oliveira and other officials said that reaching the most remote and desperate areas was impossible by helicopter until Sunday. The area hit by the slides is full of steep mountains with jagged peaks, making navigation challenging even in good weather, he said. With clouds that hovered well below the mountaintops for days, helicopters could not be used.

That has meant people have simply had to save themselves, mostly by hiking miles (kilometers) from their neighborhoods down to the center of Teresopolis to fetch supplies.

For days, slow streams of wet, muddy men and women, some in their bare feet, have tied supermarket bags together and slung them over their shoulders to carry basic provisions to those too frail to make the treacherous hike down to the city.

Many residents seemed resigned to getting little real help — and to staying in the dangerous neighborhoods that are under constant threat of future slides.

In the hard-hit Cascata do Imbui neighborhood high above downtown Teresopolis, Maria de Jesus Correia, 50, said she watched the water and mud that killed many of her neighbors wash right by her house, and she heard their screams. But she continues to live in the small home carved into the hillside, caring for her three grandchildren.

She lives there for free — her husband is the caretaker for the ranch farther up the hill, and she cleans the landlord's home. They can't afford to pay rent elsewhere, and she doesn't like the prospect of sleeping on foam mattresses on the floor in a shelter with her grandchildren.

"What was supposed to happen has already happened," she said. "I am not leaving. Am I going to take my grandchildren to a shelter? It's a horror down there."

President Dilma Rousseff designated $60 million in aid for the state of Rio de Janeiro and the hardest-hit towns. The minister of national integration, Fernando Bezerra, said half the money would be in state and municipal accounts by Monday — six days after the disaster struck.

Rio state's Civil Defense department said on its website Sunday that 268 people were killed in Teresopolis and 283 in Nova Friburgo, a 45-mile (75-kilometer) drive to the west. Fifty-six died in neighboring Petropolis and 19 in the town of Sumidouro.