Brazil mudslides survivors angry

2011-01-15 14:39

Teresopolis - Survivors of mudslides that killed more than 500 people are growing frustrated, saying Brazil's government has fallen short in rescuing victims still stranded on remote hillsides and finding the bodies of the dead.

On the fourth night since torrential rains sent avalanches of mud and boulders smashing through communities in the lush mountains outside Rio de Janeiro, many people were still begging officials for aid late on Friday. Many also took it upon themselves to search for their dead and help out the living.

"The ones I've seen go up there and really make the effort are all people from here," said Sergio Joaquin de Jesus, 48, a construction worker who had just donated blood and was rounding up a crew of co-workers to dig for bodies on Saturday morning.

His wife's brother and sister were missing. But de Jesus said he planned to carry provisions up to people stuck high in the mountains.

"Imagine, human beings up there, with no food, no water, nowhere to sleep, in this weather. They're living like dogs," he said. "Where is the government? What are they still waiting for?"

The military said on Friday that it was sending 11 helicopters and 500 personnel to help approximately 800 rescuers from fire departments and the state civil defence agency who were struggling to reach stricken areas in an incessant rain.

The army and navy also pledged heavy digging machinery, ambulances and generators - the last essential to continue the rescue effort in the dark.

Low-hanging rain clouds prevented the helicopters from flying in, however, and the military promised it would try again on Saturday.

Survivors did what they could.

Fernando Perfista dug out the body of his eldest child from the mud, then looked for the 12-year-old's three missing siblings. He sheltered the boy's remains in a fridge to keep scavenging dogs at bay while he searched.

After failing to find his other children, the 31-year-old ranch hand built a gurney from scrap wood, carried his son's body down a mudslide-wrecked slope before dawn on Friday and buried him in a homemade coffin.

Then Perfista waited with a crowd in the rain outside the Teresopolis morgue for a chance to plead with officials to help him continue his search. He clutched plastic-covered pictures of his three other children: a chubby 1-year-old and two smiling girls, ages 6 and 10.

"My children are in there, in that river bank, under that mud," he said blankly.

Survivors of mudslides that killed at least 537 people in a mountainous area north of Rio de Janeiro streamed into the center of Teresopolis on Friday.

Amauri Souza, a 38-year-old who helped Perfista carry his son's body, said a few helicopters had reached isolated areas, but "they're only taking down the wounded."

He said officials were not dropping off body bags or food or water, adding that he feared the consequences if aid did not arrive soon.

"The water is rotten, but people are forced to drink it. There is no food. I had meat in my house, but it's all gone bad," Souza said.

He said he pulled his wife and 6-month-old daughter onto higher ground just as a churning mass of water, mud and rocks hit early Wednesday. But his wife's parents were lost - he heard their screams for help as they washed away. Their bodies hadn't been found by Friday.

"It's a scene of war and total loss," Souza said of the Fazenda Alpina area of Teresopolis.

Officials fear the death toll could rise once remote areas are reached. Authorities did not offer an estimate on the missing, but local reports put it in the hundreds.

Flimsier houses

There is no central repository of information about survivors and missing people, said Carla Monica Tomazetto, a city worker using a microphone to call out the names of those being sought by relatives just outside a shelter for those who lost their homes.

"I have here a 12-year-old boy, Malachias, looking for his grandmother," she called out. "The grandmother of Malachias _ are you here?"

Teresopolis, a city of 163 000 people next to a national park, sits in a land of thickly forested slopes and sheer mountain peaks, and is a chief training site for Brazil's national soccer team. It's home to many ornate weekend homes where the wealthy of Rio escape the summer heat to enjoy horseback riding and other luxuries.

The poorer citizens who live here year-round make do with flimsier houses, built of thin brick and wood, with little or no foundation, on denuded land. The surges of mud and water struck rich and poor alike, but most of the dead have been found in impoverished neighbourhoods.

At the main shelter for those left homeless, volunteers took names of those who wandered in and tacked up lists on the walls. Survivors crowded around the lists, hoping to spot the name of a loved one.

Eucristo Candido Silvestre, a 72-year-old who uses a cane, went to the shelter, the morgue, churches and club houses looking for his 75-year-old sister, Marina Silvestre Teixeira, whose neighborhood was destroyed.

"I've had no word about her, about her son and daughter who lived with her," he said.

Margareta Wahlstrom, the United Nations' assistant secretary-general for disaster risk reduction, said Brazil should have been better prepared. "This kind of tragedy does not need to happen," she said from Geneva in a phone interview.

Wahlstrom said the government should have had an early warning and emergency escape system in place.

Rio Gov Sergio Cabral visited on Friday and lashed out at local mayors for letting people build in areas where mudslides are likely. He acknowledged, however, that such irregular building has gone on for decades and is a problem in many areas.

Rio state's Civil Defence department said on its website that 231 people were killed in Teresopolis and 247 in Nova Friburgo, a 75km drive to the west that draws hikers and campers to mountain trails, waterfalls and dramatic views of lush green slopes. Forty-three died in neighboring Petropolis and 16 in the town of Sumidouro.

Associated Press writers Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.