Petropolis, Brazil (AFP) Jan 17, 2011
The death toll from devastating floods and landslides in Brazil rose Monday to 640, as the military stepped up efforts to reach isolated communities near Rio.
The disaster -- the worst of its type in Brazil's history -- was now mobilizing more than 1,500 emergency personnel, including from the army, air force, and police and fire services.
Fears of disease spreading have added urgency to the search for decomposing bodies, and officials have told the local population to not use runoff water for drinking.
Rio de Janeiro state on Monday began seven days of mourning for the victims, adding to a three-day national mourning period declared by President Dilma Rousseff.
The toll looked certain to rise further as roads were cleared to finally allow bulldozers to reach remote hamlets six days after sliding earth swallowed them up.
New mudslides Sunday in a town called Itaipava claimed three more lives, though they were counted apart from the total of 640 given by the state civil defense service.
Some 120 people are missing and presumed dead, according to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, citing state and local officials.
Military and police helicopters were being used to access cut-off areas, though persistent rain was often keeping them grounded because of limited visibility.
Mayors from the hardest-hit towns of Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis met to discuss how their region, heavily dependent on tourism, can survive, the GloboNews channel reported.
Around 13,400 people were being put up in shelters or relatives' places after losing their homes or because they had to abandon at-risk areas.
The mudslides that struck the Serrana mountain region just north of Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday last week were caused by rains dumping the equivalent of a month's precipitation in just a few hours.
Destruction was exacerbated by houses illegally built on deforested hillsides -- a situation Rousseff and state officials have blamed on decades of weak municipal oversight in the area.
The disaster was the first big challenge in Rousseff's mandate, who took over from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on January 1.
After visiting the zone last week, Rousseff had her government send 60 million dollars in immediate emergency aid with another 390 million dollars to follow, as well as several tons of medical supplies and 700 armed services personnel to help with rescue and recovery operations.
But she also took the weekend off, going to her private residence in the southern city of Porto Alegre to relax.
Observers said that, though she lacked Lula's personable charisma, Rousseff appeared to be passing the test.
"The president was active," political analyst Rodolfo Texeira told AFP, contrasting her performance with that of US president George W. Bush's notoriously passive response to Hurricane Katrina, which flooded New Orleans in 2005.
"She sent field hospitals, promised aid, and brought to bear the presence of the state," he said.
Ordinary Brazilians were also rallying to help, sending donations of clothes and food to the disaster zone.
The Estadao news agency reported, however, that many of the packets were being stored outdoors in Teresopolis, where they were becoming sodden.
Refrigerated trucks were parked in front of a makeshift morgue inside a Teresopolis church to take bodies as decomposition and disease became concerns.
A municipal official, Solange Sirico, told Brazilian television there was a risk of epidemics breaking out as bodies decomposing in the tropical heat mingled with water runoff.
"Also, in all the mountain region, there is a danger of snakes, scorpions and spiders," she added.
earlier related report
After rains resumed in the afternoon, the air force had to call back helicopters that had been sent as a lifeline to 80 people stranded since Wednesday in the village of Brejal, in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, a spokesman said.
"The weather conditions do not permit us to advance in the rural areas and to help people who are isolated," said Rio firefighter Colonel Pedro Machado. "We can only make short flights. The teams on the ground are also having a lot of difficulty."
The military had hoped to evacuate people in hamlets cut off by rivers of water and mud that carved massive destruction in the Serrana region just north of Rio de Janeiro.
Bodies buried under rubble and sludge would have to wait until teams with heavy equipment could get to the communities, something that could take days because roads were destroyed.
Soldiers, civil defense workers, police and rangers were seen gathering in Nova Friburgo, reinforcing teams that so far have pulled 283 bodies from decimated parts of the town.
General Oswaldo de Jesus Ferreira, coordinating the military response, told O Globo newspaper that the 500 troops sent to the Serrana would not only recover bodies but also clear roads and distribute food.
The military had 38 vehicles, including two ambulances, and 11 helicopters based out of Teresopolis, another hard-hit town where 268 people died.
Although the toll Sunday stood at 626 dead, workers transporting bodies said they feared the overall count will rise as rescuers reached outlying hamlets.
"I think in the end we'll see more than 1,000 bodies," said a funeral worker in Teresopolis, Mauricio Berlim. "In one village near here, Campo Grande, there were 2,500 homes and not one is left standing."
President Dilma Rousseff has declared three days of mourning, while Rio authorities said their state will observe a full week of mourning starting Monday.
At least 14,000 people have been made homeless, officials said, and Rio governor Sergio Cabral declared a state of emergency in seven municipalities.
Authorities made an urgent appeal for donations of blood, bottled water, food and medicine, and for medically trained people to help.
At least four refrigerated trucks were parked in front of a makeshift morgue inside a Teresopolis church to take bodies as decomposition and disease became concerns.
The disaster, which media called the worst tragedy of its kind in Brazil's history, struck sleeping families Wednesday before dawn.
Seasonally heavy rains were suddenly intensified by a cold front, dumping a month's worth of precipitation in just eight hours, causing torrents of water and mud that wiped out everything in their path.
Water, food and electricity were still lacking in some areas of the Serrana four days after the disaster, with authorities struggling to deliver supplies over fully or partially collapsed roads. Telephone communications were unreliable though progressively being restored.
A municipal official in Teresopolis, Solange Sirico, told Brazilian television there was a risk of epidemics breaking out as bodies decomposing in the tropical heat mingled with water runoff.
"Also, in all the mountain region, there is a danger of snakes, scorpions and spiders," she added.
Forecasters warned that the wet weather was likely to last for a few more days.
"We are predicting a light but steady rain, which is not good because it could lay the conditions for more landslides," said the head of the national weather institute, Luiz Cavalcanti.
Nova Friburgo, founded by the Swiss in 1819, and has ongoing close ties with Geneva. Swiss officials said a team of expert relief workers was due to arrive later in the Brazilian community to assess the community's urgent needs.
Meanwhile, animal rights activists and veterinarians on Sunday were carrying out efforts rescued efforts to save critters stranded by the flooding.
Veterinarian Margarida de Oliveria told AFP that the effort aimed to rescue including dogs, cats, and horses, and said an animal field hospital would be set up in the affected region on Monday.
Solange Ribeiro of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), said the need is dire.
"We know there are many animals living in deplorable situations... abandoned without food, and with injuries. We know the priority is to save lives of humans, but we will not abandon them," she said.
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