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Brazil rains death toll rises, search for bodies continues

posted 16 Jan 2011, 09:27 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 16 Jan 2011, 09:29 ]

Death toll from severe flooding and landslides rises to 611 as rescue workers pull more bodies from mud and rubble in Rio de Janeiro's mountainous region.

NOVA FRIBURGO, BRAZIL (JANUARY 16, 2011) REUTERS - Rains that devastated a mountainous region north of Rio de Janeiro have killed at least 611 people, Brazil's Civil Defense agency said on Sunday (January 16), as forecasts of more storms and fears of disease outbreaks overshadowed rescue operations.

Nearly five days after rains sparked floods and massive landslides in one of Brazil's worst natural disasters, the death toll continues to rise steadily as rescuers dig up corpses from under rivers of mud and reach more remote areas.

Rescue workers still dug for people under mounds of debris, a task made difficult by more rain on Saturday and forecast of more downpours on Sunday.

The army has helped with the rescue of 110 families in isolated areas in Teresopolis, where 263 people have died, but victims increasingly complain about what they see as a lack of government help in distributing basic goods and finding bodies.

Like bodies, more dramatic stories show up every minute.

Maria de Lourdes recalled having lost everything in the floods, but was thankful to have saved her family.

"The water started to cover the stairs and we placed some of the things over others, but it was impossible with the power of the water, everything collapsed and we only had time to save ourselves. Everything I owned, I lost, it was total loss," she said.

Many victims had to be airlifted to field hospitals set up in the neighboring town of Nova Friburgo, where the mudslides also caused huge life loss.

While donations of food, water and clothing are pouring in from around the country, many people in remote areas lacked basic supplies.

Leia Ramos Pacheco said she had blood pressure peaks over the past two days but had finally received drugs.

"I had high blood pressure, but now I took some medicines and I'm getting better. Thank God everything will be alright," she said.

The extent of the damage has posed a challenge for Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's new president, and exposed major flaws in emergency planning and disaster prevention in a country that aspires to attain developed-nation status in coming years.

State health authorities have also warned the population against diseases that could be contracted by drinking or other contact with contaminated rain water.

An unidentified woman said she lost her son and most of her neighbors in the landslides.

"My son is (buried) over there. Most of my neighbors are gone, but God spared me," she said.

Rousseff visited the region on Thursday and pledged a swift relief effort that has yet to pan out in some of the hardest-hit areas, though anger has so far been mostly directed at state and local authorities. The federal government has earmarked 780 million reais ($463.5 million) in emergency aid and Rousseff declared three days of mourning.

Fire fighter chief Albuquerque, said some areas could only be reached by helicopter and rescue workers were lacking gear to search for bodies.

"The operation is being made by helicopter and not only by the fire department, but also by several institutions. And the land operations are being coordinated along with the civil defense so that we are always aware of how much rescue gear we need," he said.

The Civil Defense agency is distributing vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria, according to its website.