Rescue operations continue in flood-hit Brazil

Rescue operations continue in flood-hit Brazil
Teresopolis: Days after mudslides wiped out whole neighborhoods, many residents continued to live in homes in threatened areas, unwilling to join the thousands crowded into shelters despite the ever-present danger to their lives.

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 neighbours.

Oliveira da Silva knows his 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?"

Survivors who lost everything and those clinging to homes on unstable ground face an uncertain future as they try to rebuild lives torn apart by the landslides that struck mountain towns outside Rio de Janeiro and killed at least 626 -- a death toll that rises every day as more bodies are pulled from the mud.

Municipal, state and federal officials were responding Sunday, setting up a center to register missing persons; distributing 35,000 free cell phones donated by a telecommunications company; and announcing immediate plans to relocate some 2,500 people housed at a packed gymnasium to 18 smaller, better organized shelters at churches, warehouses and other spaces.

Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek of Teresopolis, one of the hardest-hit cities, said more than 2,000 tents are being brought in, each capable of sheltering up to 10 people. Teresopolis has more than 3,000 people who were left homeless by the slides.

"They will give families shelter for up to six months while more permanent solutions can be developed," Sedlacek said. "These tents will at least re-establish the family units, which will bring some comfort to people living in communal shelters."

That could come as some comfort to people like Magda Brito Silveira, who said she was near her breaking point trying to run her family of six children after five chaotic days in the gym.

"We have nowhere else to go, no resources," she said. "I am trying to keep the children clean, to feed them, to make sure we're all together. But I can't hold on like this much longer."

A local business has offered land on which to set up the tents, and crews began working to level the ground, Sedlacek said. The city is also studying the option of erecting modular homes, which can be set up within a few days.

Even before the disaster struck, the city had requested federal funds to build affordable, safe housing, in a region notably lacking in both.

More than $72 million has since been approved for Teresopolis and will be used to build homes and shore up areas at risk for more slides, the mayor said.

Two other towns hit by the disaster also won federal funding: $13 million for Petropolis, and $5 million for Nova Friburgo.

The federal government also offered to pay the rent of 2,500 families for an indeterminate period of time. Sign-ups for the program started Sunday, said Gen. Jose Elito, minister for national security.

"We are removing bureaucratic bottlenecks and registering people to help them with long-term housing needs," Elito said.

Authorities also will map out and evacuate high-risk areas where residents are holding on to their homes, said Sedlacek, the mayor.

"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.

Continued rains set off a fresh mudslide in an isolated town outside Petropolis on Sunday morning, according to O Globo newspaper, which reported three fatalities. City officials did not answer phone calls seeking to confirm the report.

A brief lull in the downpours allowed rescue helicopters to buzz around the craggy, emerald-green peaks in this area about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Rio de Janeiro, delivering desperately needed food and water to some of the most remote neighborhoods.

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

The helicopters were not immediately being used for evacuations.

The slides began before dawn Wednesday, when tons of earth, rock and raging water cascaded down steep mountainsides and into towns over an area of about 900 square miles (2,330 square kilometers).

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."

Survivors have complained of receiving no help, and all levels of government have come under criticism for the slow response.

But Oliveira and other officials said that reaching the most remote areas was impossible by helicopter until Sunday, due to the jagged terrain and rough weather.

That has left many people to fend for themselves, often slogging across miles (kilometers) of muddy paths down to the center of Teresopolis for supplies.

President Dilma Rousseff has designated $60 million in disaster aid, and officials said half the money would be in state and municipal accounts by Monday.

Rio state's Civil Defense department said on its website Sunday that the death toll reached 626 between the cities of Teresopolis, Nova Friburgo, Petropolis and Sumidouro.